Instead, the government mishandled the issue from the start. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says he was only aware of the raid after it took place. While there is no reason to doubt his words, he is the head of government and he should state clearly that the buck stops with him. The mistake may well lie with the air forces, as the interior minister claims, but the ruling party, which prides itself on having curbed the army’s political influence, can’t at the same time attempt to shift the blame to the generals when something goes awry.
What went wrong in the chain of command and who gave the disastrous order to strike needs to be thoroughly investigated to ensure such egregious mistakes aren’t repeated and that those responsible held to account. But the priority should be for the government to show it genuinely cares about the young lives needlessly lost and that it shares the grief of the families and friends left behind.
This it has failed to do. Sorry, it appears, really is the hardest word. In spite of all the changes that have taken place in Turkey in the past few years, the reflex is still to protect the system rather than individuals and to view popular reaction as hostile, even when, as in the Uludere case, it is justified.
Prime Minister Erdoğan’s charisma makes him a very popular politician, in spite of his authoritarian streak. His blundering Interior Minister Idris Naim Şahin, on the other hand, has no such saving grace. His attitude? Blame the victims, who were smugglers anyway and would have been prosecuted had they not died. It makes one wonder if the minister has undergone an empathy bypass. Making light of such a grave incident and treating the victims as mere collateral damage doesn’t just increase the sense of loss and injustice felt by the families, but it also has lasting political implications, adding to the mistrust Kurds already feel about the government and the state.
Justice, unfortunately, remains an elastic notion, subject to broad interpretation, in this country. As the 2011 annual report of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) shows, Turkey is still the country whose judicial decisions are most often challenged in Strasbourg: The court found at least one violation in 154 cases out of the 179 Turkish cases it examined.
Turkey has just been condemned by the ECtHR in two cases for the excessive length of pre-trial detentions. Many of the files currently in front of the Strasbourg judges are cases that go back many years, but new complaints keep reaching Strasbourg, even if Russia has taken the lead in the number of new cases brought to the court’s attention.
New judicial controversies cast a shadow on more positive developments like the arrest of an army officer and 16 soldiers accused of cold-bloodedly executing three Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants and a high school student, and the preparation of a reform package that will repeal the statute of limitations on torture. A new commission, soon to be set up to deal domestically with some 3,000 cases filed with the ECtHR, is also a positive move.
But dealing with pending files is only part of the problem when judicial procedures based on flawed legislation and poor evidence cause new controversies. The case of Cihan Kırmızıgül, the student picked up at a bus stop for wearing a poşu scarf and accused of launching a Molotov cocktail attack, has recently attracted much media attention. The young man spent two-and-a-half years in pre-trial detention and now faces the prospect of a return to prison after receiving an 11-year sentence, even though the only evidence against him was a statement, later retracted, issued by a “secret witness.” In their zeal to curb the activities of alleged members of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), prosecutors are also getting their basic facts wrong: Cengiz Doğan, in prison for over three years, faces new charges for allegedly taking part in protests that happened while he was behind bars.
The devastating impact that such “mistakes” have on people’s lives and their broader political repercussions cannot be underestimated. Turkey is, after all, still grappling with the military coup and its aftermath, 30 years after it happened. But it is not always evident these days that in their approach to power, the country’s current rulers have drawn the right lessons from past experience.