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January 05, 2012, Thursday

Can we solve the Uludere massacre?

Last week, the air force killed 35 Kurdish smugglers from Uludere village in an operation along the Iraqi border. The official statement argues that these 35 villagers were killed because they thought they were terrorists.

Some details on the incident are becoming clear. The people of Uludere who have been making a living by smuggling say that the military has been easy with them in recent months. In other words, they were able to cross the border and do their business. The military knows everything about the smuggling business. It appears that the military has all the information on who crosses the Iraqi border and when they return.

If so, how come the military thought these 35 villagers were terrorists and killed them? The most reasonable and rational theory in the Turkish media on the incident has been offered by Fatih Altaylı, the editor-in-chief of the Habertürk Daily. Altaylı holds that the security forces have probably pursued such a strategy. The military facilitated passage through the borders in recent months because they realized that a few PKK militants were also crossing the border along with the smugglers. They concluded that if they adopted a more lenient approach, top PKK executives might attempt to cross the border as well. It is argued that the military had an intelligence report indicating that the PKK's Syrian executive, Fehman Hussein, would cross the border disguised as a smuggler.

In fact, we may come to this conclusion based on all this information: The security forces were expecting that one of the PKK leaders would blend in with the smugglers to cross the border. In other words, they considered the civilians casualties. Most probably, when deciding on this operation, they held that killing Fehman Hussein would justify the whole action. Considering what had been done in the past during combat against terror, I think that this is a possibility that we should seriously take into account.

I believe that the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) would be illuminating to better understand what steps Turkey should take to address this incident from now on. In 2011, the ECHR tried Russia over a similar incident; in its ruling, the Court decided against the Russian sate (Esmuhambetov and others v. Russia). Civilians died during the bombing carried out by the Russian army in Kogi village along the Dagestan border over suspicions that they were Chechen “terrorists.” Russia paid compensation to these villagers; however, the ECHR concluded that payment of compensation would not be an adequate measure to address the violation. The Court stressed that an effective investigation should have been carried out simply because the incident involved violation of the right to life. And to do this, the court further noted that the investigation should be performed swiftly and that it should be open to public scrutiny; the ECHR further concluded that the Russian state should take measures to make sure that the investigators have access to all documents and information.

A review of the Esmuhambetov case, as well as other similar cases where the ECHR ruled against Turkey, will clarify the steps that Turkey should now take. In the Ergi case, the ECtHR considered that the security forces in Turkey did not plan the operation well and that the plan did not involve any measures that would ensure civilians would not be harmed. This is one of the crucial points in respect to the Uludere massacre; and it appears that there are some big problems with respect to this aspect.

The press reports so far indicate that the prosecutors handling the Uludere investigation asked for the relevant documents on the operation from the General Staff and other units. Given the rulings against Turkey in the past, we may likewise conclude that reliance solely on these documents and other public statements would not be sufficient for a serious and thorough investigation. In the Kaya, Güleç, Ergi cases, as well as many others, the ECtHR ruled against Turkey because the prosecutors assumed that the statements by public offices were authentic. I hope that the Uludere prosecutors would take a look at the relevant rulings of the ECtHR.

I have already noted that the ECtHR pays attention in such cases to public scrutiny; but what has happened so far is not promising. Despite delegations from the Human Rights Association (İHD) and the Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed Peoples (Mazlum-Der) asking for an appointment, they could not meet with any official figure in Uludere. And when they attempted to do a site research, the military stopped them. I believe that bar associations should take action and become part of the investigation as representatives of the victims.

We will see whether Turkey would adequately investigate the Uludere massacre or cover it up with a superficial investigation. The investigation initiated to identify the details of this incident should be carefully followed by domestic and international circles.

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