Turkey Warned Against Going Back to Future on PKK

By Emre Peker and Joe Parkinson – WALLSTREET JOURNAL – 4.9.2012 –  ISTANBUL — Just as one of the bloodiest summers since the 1990s is turning Turkey’s leaders increasingly hawkish against Kurdish politicians and separatist guerillas, Human Rights Watch offered a glimpse into the dark methods employed two decades ago that scarred the population and sowed distrust toward the state.

Thousands of civilians disappeared or were killed in the 1990s as Turkey’s military pursued a scorched-earth policy against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, according to a report unveiled Monday by the New York-based human-rights group. The conflict has claimed more than 44,000 military, PKK and civilian lives since it started in the 1980s and displaced thousands of people from their villages, Human Rights Watch said.

The report urged Turkey to take steps against officials who perpetrated crimes such as summary executions under state-sanctioned operations, and warned that members of the security forces could escape punishment thanks to a law setting a 20-year limit on prosecuting murders committed before 2005. “Old laws that curtail investigations into serious human rights abuses in Turkey have allowed the security forces and public officials to get away with murder and torture,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It is vital that Turkish authorities act now to ensure there are no time bars on victims getting justice.”

Amid flashing warning signs, the report spells out the perils of using the same playbook to fight a resurgent PKK, which this summer has sparked an upswing of violence in Turkey’s southeast.

The findings come at a sensitive time for Turkey’s government and military high command. Terrorist attacks more than doubled in Turkey last year, contrasting with a 20% fall in Europe and Eurasia, according to a U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism published in July. The PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union, was responsible for the majority of the assaults.

Just last month, the PKK responded to a 19-day operation by Turkey’s security forces in the southeastern Hakkari province by killing scores of civilians and soldiers in bombings and coordinated attacks on military posts, kidnapping a member of parliament for 48 hours as well as tens of civilians and local politicians who have yet to be released, and seeking to expand its territorial control of the region bordering Iraq and Syria.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded similarly to his predecessors in the 1990s, pledging to carry on the government’s “determined fight against terrorism” until the PKK is wiped out. The premier also lashed out against the media, criticizing the coverage of PKK’s attacks as propaganda for the organization. Taking their cues from the state, Turkish media were quick to lead stories with headlines such as “Our hearts are on fire” and “We will never surrender to terror” after the PKK killed at least 10 soldiers on Sunday. Following a car bomb that killed 10 civilians in Gaziantep two weeks ago, Hurriyet, one of the highest circulation daily newspapers, established a message group calling on its readers to decry terrorism, Turkey’s most major problem, for all to read.

Pro-Kurdish politicians from the Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, also got their share of criticism, with Mr. Erdogan labeling them an extension of the PKK that’s unfit to help negotiate an end to Turkey’s terrorism woes. Feeding the frenzy in the past couple of weeks were a BDP lawmaker hugging a PKK fighter and party co-head Selahattin Demirtas declaring that the PKK controlled a 400-kilometer stretch of the country.

Analysts say that prospects of a political breakthrough look dim given the government has pulled the plug on secret negotiations with the PKK to end the violence, opting instead for a military solution.

Coming at this juncture, the Human Rights Watch report serves as a stark reminder of the costs in a no-holds-barred conflict between Turkey and the PKK. Human Rights Watch urged Turkey to fix past wrongs and do away with the climate of intimidation that has dominated the state’s approach to ending Kurdish separatism. It suggested that the Ankara-based parliament set up an independent commission to examine past abuses and to remove obstacles such as the system of state-employed armed village guards — who are accused of murder, theft and kidnappings.

“The climate of fear among victims’ relatives and witnesses persists to this day,” Turkey researcher Ms. Sinclair-Webb said.The Justice Ministry will meet with Human Rights Watch on Wednesday, when the two parties will exchange information on the group’s findings as well as the government’s plans for the next leg of an ongoing overhaul of the legal system, according to a ministry official, who declined to be identified as per protocol. “The government and the ministry are working to resolve unattributed extra-judicial killings and bring the culprits to justice,” the official said.