The General Staff Military Prosecutors' Office, investigating the tragic killing of 34 Turkish citizens by military jets on the Turkish-Iraqi border near the town of Uludere in 2011, announced on Tuesday a decision of non-prosecution on the grounds that the officers involved in the air operation were not at fault.
After completing its investigation into the incident, the prosecutor's office ruled there was a lack of grounds for legal action for neglect of duty against five military personnel.
On Dec. 28, 2011, Turkish fighter jets mistakenly bombed smugglers believed to be members of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) near Uludere in Şırnak province, sparking outrage in Turkey. The military stated that the warplanes had targeted the group, which was approaching the Turkish border from the Iraqi side, based on intelligence that suggested a group of armed terrorists would be staging an attack on Turkish military posts.
The decision was a disappointment for the grieving families who fear the government is trying to cover up the facts of the incident. They plan to take the case to international legal platforms after exhausting all domestic options. “In the first place, we will appeal to the Constitutional Court. If we cannot obtain a [positive] result [there], we want to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights [ECtHR],” Meral Danış Beştaş, the lawyer for the families of the 34 victims killed in the attack, told Today's Zaman.
Beştaş, who is also deputy chairwoman of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), believes the decision of the military prosecutors' office was not solely taken by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), but represents a decision taken by the Turkish state as well. “We believe [the decision] was made after long consultations with the civilian administration. The timing is also meaningful,” Beştaş maintained, implying that the government may be seeking to divert the public's attention away from a graft investigation in which four former ministers of the government are also involved.
Earlier on Tuesday, Beştaş went to the General Staff and obtained the 16-page decision of the military prosecutor's office. Noting that the prosecutors' decision said the military had carried out its duty based on a decision of the Cabinet authorizing the military to conduct cross-border military operations when necessary and that it had no responsibility in the incident. Beştaş said, “With this decision, the TSK has vindicated itself.”
Ahmet Faruk Ünsal, chairman of the Association of Human Rights And Solidarity for Oppressed Peoples (MAZLUM-DER), also pointed to the timing of the announcement of the verdict, saying: “It looks as if [the Uludere decision] was announced with the hope that it gets lost within all the noise of the [recent] corruption investigation.” “They want the incident to be forgotten,” Ünsal, who strongly believes that Turkey will be punished by the ECtHR if the case comes before the European court, told Today's Zaman.
Following a one-and-a-half-year investigation of the Uludere incident, in June of 2013 the Diyarbakır Chief Public Prosecutor's Office ruled that the case was outside its jurisdiction and decided to refer it to military prosecutors, in a move that dashed hope of light being shed on the incident.
According to Sezgin Tanrıkulu, deputy chairman of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), the bombing of 34 citizens represents a “crime against humanity,” and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has often been accused of giving the instruction for the attack in Uludere, is the person primarily responsible for this crime. “Both the prime minister and the chief of General Staff will definitely be tried for this crime,” he told Today's Zaman.
Criticizing the prime minister for putting the blame on foreigners every time the government is faced with problems, Tanrıkulu said: “Was it foreign powers who gave the order for the bombing [in the Uludere incident]? Or is it because he [the prime minister] himself gave the order, which is why he does not let the judiciary do its job?”
A sub-commission of Parliament's Human Rights Commission prepared an 84-page report on the Uludere incident and released it in March. The report, which said there was no evidence of deliberate misconduct in the incident, caused outrage among the victims' families, opposition politicians and various civil society groups. The report was described by representatives of humanitarian organizations at the time as an embarrassing report that sought to cover up those responsible for the tragic incident.
Ferhat Öncü, the spokesperson for the families of the victims killed in the attack, is not surprised by the decision of the military prosecutor's office. “Right from the beginning, the state has adopted a certain [negative] attitude [towards the incident]. We are faced with an eclipse of conscience,” he told Today's Zaman. Öncü also underlined that they would appeal to the ECtHR should all domestic legal remedies in the Uludere incident be exhausted without a result.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has been holding talks with the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, since last year in a bid to resolve the Kurdish problem and PKK terrorism. Thanks to these talks, no clashes have taken place between the PKK and Turkish security forces for over a year. The government is also taking some steps towards democratization to expand the rights of the Kurds. Many believe, however, that its failure to explain the Uludere tragedy will damage the peace efforts.
'General Staff knew Uludere victims were civilians ahead of strike'
In a news report that appeared in Today's Zaman about a month after Turkish jets bombed Uludere villagers at the end of 2011, sources close to the General Staff, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, maintained that some members of the General Staff had been aware that those who were killed in the air attack were not Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorists, but villagers.
The sources maintained that the order to launch an airstrike on the 34 Kurdish citizens was given despite a warning from the Air Force Command that the group approaching to cross the border comprised smugglers and not PKK terrorists. Air Force officers had to demand that the order be conveyed in writing. The airstrike was conducted after a written order came from the General Staff, where several high-ranking army officers allegedly watched every second of imagery relayed from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) monitoring the area.
The same sources also claimed that Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel had been deliberately misinformed about the operation. The group responsible for the order notified Özel that a terrorist group crossing the border had been stopped with the air strike.
A military source who asked to remain anonymous told Today's Zaman at the time that the real purpose behind the airstrike was to put Chief of General Staff Gen. Özel, who was appointed by the government, and National Intelligence Organization (MİT) Undersecretary Hakan Fidan in a difficult position. The same officer also noted that the botched airstrike was also to render Turkey's counterterrorism efforts ineffective.
*Ali Aslan Kılıç and Cumali Önal contributed to this report