ANKARA: It has been five years since prominent Kurdish lawyer and human rights advocate Tahir Elci was murdered in the middle of the street in broad daylight.
But as the trial of three police officers for the unsolved killing of the Kurdish lawyer and peace activist began in southeastern province of Kurdish-majority Diyarbakir on Wednesday, state authorities were accused of attempting to divert public attention from the real culprits.
Elci, chair of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, was one of the few prominent “bridge figures” in Turkey who sought to find common ground between the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which he also publicly criticized, and the Turkish government.
Months before his November 2015 murder, however, violent exchanges between Turkish army and the PKK resumed after a cease-fire collapsed.
Elci was shot and killed during a press conference in Diyarbakir in which he called for an end to clashes between Turkish security forces and the youth wing of the PKK.
His death triggered protests around the country and international condemnation.
Elci’s professional focus was on human rights violations by security forces and enforced disappearances, and he frequently represented victims before the European Court of Human Rights.
However, the inclusion of a PKK member along with the three police officers as suspects in the case has been widely criticized after Forensic Architecture, a London-based independent research group, analyzed camera footage of the shooting and concluded that the three officers at the scene were the most likely suspects.
Prosecutors are seeking up to nine years’ jail for the three officers, however two are still on active duty.
The police officers attended the proceedings through video conference.
Ahmet Ozmen, former head of Diyarbakir Bar Association, accused investigators of negligence, saying that a 13-second section of video footage showing Elci’s murder was missing.
“The authorities failed to gather evidence efficiently; the bullet that killed Elci hasn’t been located yet. The prosecutor who investigated the murder was replaced several times,” he told Arab News.
Elci came under fire after a live TV interview hosted by pro-government presenter Ahmet Hakan in 2015 when he said that the “PKK is not a terror group but an armed political organization.”
The statement resulted in a series of death threats and warnings that he faced up to seven years in prison for publicly supporting a terror group.
“The indictment about the assassination was conducted very inefficiently,” Ozmen said. “This case is meant to create chaos and fear in Turkey.”
However, he added: “These attacks won’t discourage us. Lawyers with Kurdish identity will continue our struggle for rights, justice and freedom. This is why the Diyarbakir Bar Association is well known not only in Turkey but also around the world.”
Tens of thousands of mourners attended Elci’s funeral, and domestic and international human rights groups have continued to call for justice and for the full circumstances of his murder to be revealed.
“There are compelling reasons to argue that the charge should have been the more serious ‘foreseeable intentional killing’ since in discharging firearms in a street with civilians present the police knowingly endangered civilian lives,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Turkey ranks 109th out of 126 countries in the World Justice Project’s rule of law index for 2019.
“It hasn’t been a satisfactory hearing because all our judicial requests have been declined. The suspects haven’t been heard in the trial. This court has completely lost its impartiality and independence,” Neset Girasun, deputy director of Tahir Elci Human Rights Foundation, told Arab News.
According to Girasun, such cases damage public trust not only among the Kurdish population, but also wider society.
“Elci, with his 23-year effort to highlight the injustices that Kurdish people face, contributed a lot to a sense of justice among them. He always tried to support people in the region. What still remains behind the scenes should be brought to light,” Girasun added.
The trial will resume on March 3, 2021.