On June 6 the military court in the southeastern city of Van once again postponed a scheduled hearing in a case brought against three members of the security forces who are accused of carrying out an extra-judicial execution in the Kurdish town of Semdinli in November 2005. The trial is widely regarded as a test case for Turkey’s willingness to hold members of its security forces accountable for human rights abuses in its 24-year-old war against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Two gendarmerie intelligence officers, Ali Kaya and Ozcan Ildeniz, and a former PKK member turned informer called Veysel Ates are accused of killing one man, Zahir Korkmaz, and injuring two others in a bomb explosion at the Umit Bookshop in Semdinli shortly after noon on November 9, 2005. The device is alleged to have been planted by Ates, who was apprehended by an angry mob of local people immediately after the explosion as he attempted to get into a waiting car occupied by Kaya and Ildeniz. The mob ransacked the car. Local TV showed them the brandishing weapons and documents they had found in the trunk of the car. These included identity cards indicating that Kaya and Ildeniz were gendarmerie intelligence officers, an apparent death list of alleged PKK sympathizers and diagrams of the home and workplace of the bookshop’s owner, whose name was also on the death list.
The Turkish authorities have traditionally either ignored allegations of extrajudicial killings by the security forces in southeast Turkey or attempted to attribute them to internal feuding in the PKK. But this time the evidence was overwhelming. The three men were tried and found guilty. On June 19, 2006, they were sentenced to 39 years in jail. However, on May 16, 2007, the Turkish Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the convictions on the grounds that, as the accused were military personnel, the case should have been heard by a military court. The three were released pending their retrial. None of them was present in court on June 6, when the panel of judges postponed hearing the case until September 19, on the grounds that they needed to conduct an onsite investigation at the scene of the crime. It was the third time the court had postponed the hearing.
“The release of the accused and now the announcement that the court is going to conduct an onsite investigation have increased our doubts about the outcome of the trial,” commented lawyer Dincer Aslan, who had attended the trial as an observer (www.bianet.org, June 6).
Even at the best of times, the Turkish legal system is notorious for being tortuously slow. But there is also little doubt that there are occasions when, in potentially embarrassing cases, the authorities deliberately drag out the trial as long as possible, often until the accused have to be released under the statute of limitations.
The Semdinli case has been particularly embarrassing for the Turkish military and a gift to its Islamist opponents, who rarely miss the opportunity to try to undermine the public prestige of one of the bastions of the Turkish secular establishment. At the time the news of the Semdinli bombing broke, some supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had already started a defamation campaign against General Yasar Buyukanit, a known secularist hardliner who was then commander of the Turkish Land Forces, in an attempt to prevent him from replacing the more amenable General Hilmi Ozkok as chief of the Turkish General Staff (TGS) when the latter retired in August 2006. Buyukanit inadvertently presented the defamation campaign with some additional material when he remarked to journalists that, during the 1990s, Ates had served as a guide for the military unit he was commanding at the time, although he added that he had had no contact with him since. Ferhat Sarikaya, the local prosecutor in Van who, unusually for a member of the judiciary, had Islamist sympathies, immediately named Buyukanit in the indictment, accusing him of complicity in the bombing and of creating an illegal organization to wreck Turkey’s prospects of accession to the EU. Sarikaya was swiftly removed from his post, and the charges against Buyukanit were dropped. In August 2006 he duly succeeded Ozkok as chief of the TGS.
Nevertheless, the accusations against Buyukanit have damaged his reputation; not least because despite the lack of any evidence, they are still believed by many Islamists. Perhaps more insidiously, they also enabled the military to dismiss calls for a full investigation into the Semdinli bombing as being politically motivated.
Traditionally, covert operations by the Turkish security forces have been highly compartmentalized. Knowledge of individual operations, including those that have involved human rights abuses and extrajudicial executions, has been restricted to a very small number of people. It is unlikely in the extreme that Buyukanit, as commander of the Land Forces, would have been aware of the details of all the operations conducted by low-level members of Gendarmerie intelligence, which is an organizationally distinct service. But it would also have been impossible for three low-level members of the Gendarmerie to have carried out a campaign of extrajudicial executions without the knowledge and approval of their immediate superiors. However, the politicization of the Semdinli bombing has meant that, even if the trial of the three accused is eventually concluded, those who gave them their orders are unlikely ever to appear in court.