The Turkish government is blocking access for independent investigations into reports of mass abuses against civilians across southeast Turkey, Human Rights Watch said this week. The alleged abuses include unlawful killings of civilians, mass forced civilian displacement, and widespread unlawful destruction of property. Since the July 2015 breakdown of a peace process to end the decades-long conflict between the Turkish state and the armed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), violence and armed clashes in the southeast region have escalated. During security operations since August, the authorities have imposed blanket, round-the-clock curfews on 22 towns and city neighborhoods, prohibiting all movement without permission. The curfews also prevent non-governmental organizations, journalists, and lawyers from scrutinizing those operations or any resulting abuses by security forces or armed groups. Authorities have blocked rights groups—including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Physicians for Human Rights—from trying to document abuses even after curfews and operations ended.
"The Turkish government's effective blockade of areas of the southeast fuels concerns of a major cover-up," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The Turkish government should give the UN and nongovernmental groups immediate access to the area to document what’s going on there."
Most of the deaths, destruction, and mass displacement occurred in nine towns, including Cizre. More than 355,000 people have been temporarily displaced within towns or to other nearby towns and villages, or to other regions of Turkey. At least 338 civilians have been killed in places where security forces and the Civil Protection Units (YPS), the armed group linked to the PKK, have clashed.
Human Rights Watch reviewed lists of the dead compiled by Cizre-based lawyers which show that as many as 66 Cizre residents, including 11 children, were killed by gunfire or mortar explosions during security operations between Dec. 14 and Feb. 11. According to witnesses and victims interviewed by HRW, in some cases security forces opened fire on civilians on the streets carrying white flags. Available information also indicates that security forces surrounded three buildings and deliberately and unjustifiably killed about 130 people—including unarmed civilians and injured combatants—trapped in the basements.
The majority of deaths of Cizre residents occurred in neighborhoods where the YPS had erected barricades and dug trenches, and clashes took place between security forces and armed groups. However, some civilians were killed in neighborhoods where there were no clashes or barricades.
In April, the police blocked Human Rights Watch from interviewing families of victims and witnesses to the deaths. Before authorities obstructed its work, however, HRW was able to document in detail several civilian deaths in Cizre. HRW also documented widespread property destruction in Cizre and interviewed people whose homes and property had been damaged during the clashes, and in some areas subsequently demolished.
The Turkish government has not responded to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein’s public statement in May, nor to his letter requesting permission for a UN team to conduct an investigation in the region to examine potential violations by the security forces during military operations in urban areas
Concern about an effort to cover up abuses and prevent accountability for serious crimes is compounded by parliament's passage of a new law on June 23. The law will require pre-authorization from the prime minister's office or the local district governor's office (depending on the rank of the implicated soldier or official) to investigate and prosecute soldiers and public officials alleged to have committed crimes in the course of "counter-terrorism" operations. Similar frameworks linking the prosecution of public officials to administrative permission (Law No. 4483), and others introduced during the state of emergency in the southeast in the 1990s (Statutory decree No. 430), contributed to the systematic impunity enjoyed by security forces—in the face of widespread violations of the most serious kind including extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and the unlawful destruction of thousands of homes.
Turkey is party to both the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protect the rights to life, bodily integrity, and security. Turkey's history of failing to carry out effective investigations into killings in the southeast—in particular in cases in which state agents were alleged to have been responsible for unlawful killings—resulted in a series of rulings by the European Court of Human Rights that Turkey violated the right to life.
The court also ruled on multiple occasions that the laws that required pre-authorization from administrative or political authorities to prosecute state officials led to violations under the European Convention on Human Rights. The new law is likewise incompatible with Turkey's obligations under the convention.
The deaths of an estimated 130 people trapped in three basements in the Cudi and Sur neighborhoods during security operations in Cizre in early February urgently require a full investigation, Human Rights Watch said. "Amid a mounting death toll and a spiralling conflict, real accountability in Turkey’s southeast is crucial," Sinclair-Webb said. "Prosecutors should thoroughly and effectively investigate all allegations of abuse by state forces and armed groups, and no legal or extra-legal measures should be taken to try to ensure impunity for personnel responsible for these crimes."
The deaths in Cizre occurred during the period that Turkish authorities placed the town under a 79-day blanket curfew, from Dec. 14 to March 2, as well as during a nine-day curfew in September 2015.
The government has justified the curfews based on Turkey's Provincial Administration law, which gives governors powers to take "decisions and measures" to ensure "peace and security, protection of the person, public well-being." Before August 2015, the law had not been interpreted for use to impose blanket, round-the-clock curfews. According to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, it has been used in this way 65 times since August.
On June 13, the Council of Europe's Venice Commission issued an opinion finding the legal framework governing curfews inadequate. The Commission recommended that the Turkish authorities end the imposition of curfews on the basis of the Provincial Administration Law.
Violations of the curfew are subject to a fine of 100 Turkish lira ($30), but in practice those who have ventured out have also risked being shot at or detained, as demonstrated in cases documented by Human Rights Watch.
During the recent curfew, joint police and military operations were conducted against the armed Civil Protection Units (YPS), which had sealed off neighborhoods with barricades and trenches planted with explosives. The group was formerly named the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDGH) and renamed itself the Civil Protection Units (YPS) in December 2015.
Fact-finding missions in Cizre undertaken by Turkey's leading human rights groups, Mazlumder (PDF), the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, and the Human Rights Association (PDF), have been unable to arrive at a final estimate of civilian deaths. A report by the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) puts the combined number of dead among named civilians and combatants at 251, while highlighting that the identification of bodies is continuing. A much higher but unknown number sustained injuries, the human rights groups said.
Human Rights Watch carried out research in Cizre in early March and mid-April. Researchers spoke to victims and witnesses, lawyers, and non-governmental organization representatives. In mid-April, police officers from the Anti-Terror Branch blocked HRW from interviewing families of victim and said that permission was needed from the Cizre district governor to conduct such interviews. There is no legal basis for requiring official permission for a third party to interview consenting victims or witnesses.
The Turkish Armed Forces stated on Feb. 22 that in Cizre 665 PKK members had been "rendered ineffective," which usually means killed and apprehended. However, there has been no official acknowledgement of any civilian deaths. Media reports estimate that 23 soldiers and police were killed during the operations in Cizre between December and February.
More than three months after the operations in Cizre ended, the Turkish authorities have made no official announcement about an investigation into what occurred in the town.
After domestic human rights groups Mazlumder, the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, and the Human Rights Association documented violations of the right to life and multiple other abuses in reports about Cizre, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on April 7, criticized them strongly, without explicitly naming the group. A delegation from the international nongovernmental organization Physicians for Human Rights was not allowed into the town in May, and Amnesty International researchers were prevented from visiting in June.
The breakdown in July 2015 of a ceasefire and political process lasting over two years to end the decades-long conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK has led to spiralling violence in southeast Turkey. Unlike in previous periods, when hostilities between Turkish armed forces and the PKK took place in rural areas, there has been a major shift to urban-based hostilities.
In response to the sealing off of neighborhoods by the PKK and its youth wings, the government authorized police and military operations that involved the use of armored personnel carriers and, increasingly, heavy artillery. These operations were conducted under extended strict curfews. In addition to civilian deaths, there has been huge temporary displacement of civilians since August 2015. The health minister said on February 27 an estimated 355,000 people had been driven from their homes, and security operations since then have displaced large parts of the populations of İdil, Şırnak, Nusaybin, and Yüksekova.
Entire neighborhoods of towns such as Diyarbakir's Sur district and several parts of Silopi and Cizre sustained damage during armed hostilities and were subsequently demolished under government orders. Tens of thousands of residents from those neighborhoods face prolonged displacement. The towns of Nusaybin and Şırnak remain under curfew. Meanwhile, the operations of the security forces, which were initially led by the police, have increasingly become led by the military. (HRW, July 11)
Note: The PKK's official armed wing is the People's Defense Forces (HPG), mostly operating in the mountains. The YPS (formerly YDGH) is a network of local militia that serves as an adjunct to the HPG, and mostly operates in urban areas. (Daily Sabah, March 29)