On Saturday 28 November 2015 Pro-Kurdish lawyer Tahir Elci, president of the Diyarbakir Bar Association in southeastern Turkey and a leading human rights defender, was killed while making a press statement. Tahir Elci was shot while he and other lawyers were making a press statement to call attention to damage done to the 1,500-year-old Four-Legged Minaret Mosque by recent clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdistan Workers’ Party militants.
It wasn’t immediately clear who were behind the attack and there were conflicting reports about what led to it. Interior Minister Efkan Ala and other officials said the assault was against police officers and that Elci died in an ensuing clash, while the Diyarbakir Bar Association said the lawyer was the target of the attack.
Two policemen and a journalist were also injured during the clash.
Tahir Elci had been briefly detained and questioned a month earlier for saying during a live news programme that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, was not a terrorist organisation. Soon after, he was charged with making terrorist propaganda and was facing more than 7 years in prison. According to Amnesty International “The murder of journalists and human rights defenders in Turkey has a long and tragic history. More often than not, the circumstances of the murders remain murky, justice is never truly served. The murder of Tahir Elçi was more than the killing of a kind and gentle man, it deprived Turkey of one of its most important voices for justice and human rights”.
In 2011 had published an open letter on the killing of Sergio de Mello the Special Representative in Iraq of the United Nations , Secretary General in which he talked about the situation in Turkey.
“Despite various reforms adopted in order to fulfil the European Union criteria in the last two years, in practise no serious progress has been recorded. In our experience, we can say that the reasons for impunity in Turkey are, firstly; ignorance of human rights and insensitivity on the part of society to human rights violations. Secondly, the authorities’ protective attitude towards those responsible for human rights violations; and, thirdly, the ineffectiveness of the judicial machinery and tolerance shown towards perpetrators. Thanks to the determined attitude of human rights defenders, I can say with happiness that official tolerance towards human rights violations – most of all torture – is showing signs of decline”.
According to the Turkey branch of Amnesty International “In his life, Tahir Elçi achieved remarkable things. In the 1990s, as a lawyer in Cizre, one of the most troubled corners of south-east Turkey, he defended the rights of those detained, tortured and forcibly disappeared when it was scarcely possible to do so, risking his own life in the process. When he was forced to leave Cizre, he continued his work in Diyarbakir, as a pre-eminent lawyer taking cases to national courts and the European Court of Human Rights and worked together with national and international human rights organisations. He later became head of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, leading fact-finding missions across the south-east of Turkey. A founding member of Amnesty International in Turkey, he has been a friend and guiding voice to us for longer still”.
Cale Salih, in a beautiful essay for the New York Times on Elçi‘s death says, “It feels inadequate to describe him as a moderate, but that is what he was in the finest sense of the word — sober, tolerant, and thoughtful. “A defender of human rights in Turkey for more than two decades, Elçi was murdered with a single bullet to the head. His last recorded words were “we don’t want guns here, clashes, or [police] operations.”
While the authorities claim to have initiated an investigation into the killing of Tahir Elci the immediate response of the Prime Minister to blame the PKK and the authorities’ own failure to secure the crime scene does not bode well for the outcome of any investigation. On the day of the funeral Tahir’s wife received a text message, allegedly from a police officer saying “You will be next”.