Death of Kurdish workers in Turkey spark widespread violence

Turkish police killing two Kurdish industrial workers has led to mass demonstrations, widespread violence and the abduction of soldiers, raising serious doubts about the ongoing Turkey-Kurdish peace process.

Rozh Ahmad
17 December 2013

Violence between police and protesters emerged across Turkey over the weekend after the police were accused of having allegedly opened fire at a peaceful Kurdish gathering on Friday in Yüksekov of Hakari Province, which resulted in the killing of 35-year-old Reşit İşbilir and 34-year-old Veysel İşbilir, who were supposedly innocent local Kurdish industrial workers. Official government sources claim they were violent protesters.   

The Friday congregation in Yüksekov was reportedly held to condemn the demolition of local graveyards of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas by an “unknown” group.

Kurdish workers in Turkey

Police attack Saturday demonstrators in Diyarbakir. Photo by Dicle News Agency DIHA

Hakari Governorate Council issued a statement on Monday saying that the two Kurdish workers were armed protesters and they were killed because they had tried to attack the police. “The two men had heavy weapons and attempted to combat the police,” the statement said. 

Hakari Police Headquarters also claimed, “Members of our forces had to engage because they were attacked by protesters with barrels and explosives.” But Turkish opposition parties, human rights lawyers as well as protesters dispute the official claims.

“Police first attacked the peaceful congregation on Friday in Yüksekov and opened fire with live ammunition that instantly killed the two local industrial workers, who had immediately tried to leave the area,” said Yegid Hassan, a human rights lawyer in the Hakari region.

The Union of Lawyers in the Hakari Province announced that they hold the police responsible for the killings and in a press conference demanded that the Provincial Police Director and Governor of Hakari step down from their posts. “Turkish police always distort the accounts just like they did with the Gezi Park protests” said Canan Şahin, who was present at the Friday congregation in Yüksekov and insisted that the killed workers were indeed Kurdish, but not protesters. “There were no clashes, weapons or molotov cocktails at the gathering prior to the police opening fire and killing the two onlookers, who were local industrial Kurdish workers and well known in Yüksekov,” she said. 

She claimed that the Turkish police had attacked her with batons outside a nearby hospital Yüksekov, where she and other protesters had taken the two workers. “We took the bodies to a nearby hospital hoping the doctors could do something for them, but the police followed us in their cars. After the bodies were rushed inside, they came for me outside and hit me with their batons, then left me on the floor and broke the hospital windows with rubber bullets and shot gas canisters into the hospital.”

Members of the Turkish Police and Counter-Terrorism Units at Yüksekova Emergency Hospital

The First Deputy of the oppositional Republican People's Party (CHP), Sezgin Tanrikulu, has also condemned the crackdown and called the deaths an “execution”, adding, “It is crucial that light is shed on this incident and a judicial procedure is opened.”

The death of these workers sparked mass walkouts and violent clashes in almost every Kurdish city as well as in Istanbul and Ankara in Turkey, where thousands have gathered condemning the police for the killings.    

Kurdish men, women and children had also barricaded their local streets from where they attacked Turkish police forces with stones and petrol bombs.

Turkey’s unofficial Kurdish capital, Diyarbakir {Amed}, witnessed one of the worst clashes on Saturday, during which dozens were reportedly wounded, including children, and are now in critical condition at local hospitals; according to local newspapers.

Fahri Kaplan, a local Kurdish journalist, who covered the clashes in Diyarbakir, said that the riot police had heavy handedly attacked Diyarbakir demonstrators, and among them were families with children.

Kurdish workers in Turkey

Child crying in his father’s arms after being hit by an intense gas canister in Diyarbakir photo by Amed News Agency (AJANSAMED) 

“Everybody joined the demonstration, even families with kids, as everybody thought it would be peaceful during a "peace process" and that only in Hakari were police provocative,” he said.

“Around 5 thousand demonstrators marched for about twenty minutes through Diyarbakir, but then suddenly police encircled and contained them, allowing nobody to leave," he said. “There were many children and police still shot rubber bullets and gas canisters directly at the trapped demonstrators. After a while and some phone calls by protesters, Kurdish youth appeared from surrounding streets hurling stones and petrol bombs at the police trying to break the kettle but the situation just got worse.”

Following the violence on Saturday night Kurdish residents of the outskirt village of Fis in Diyarbakir, abducted four Turkish soldiers and held them hostage in an unknown location. “A Peace & Democracy Party (BDP) delegation negotiated with the locals and they agreed to free the soldiers. We have now securely handed over the soldiers to the authorities,” said BDP co-leader in Diyarbakir Zubaeda Zemrud. 

Police attacked by Kurdish youth in Yüksekova. Photo by Firat News Agency ANF

“The Turkish army has now launched a military operation against the village with tanks and foot soliders, apparently looking for those responsible,” said Kaplan, adding that locals perceive it as an army operation in “retribution” for the abduction of the soldiers.   

Many consider these clashes as a signal of the end of the Turkey-Kurdish peace process which was announced earlier this year. It came after Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), declared an indefinite ceasefire to end the 30-year-long Kurdish insurgency in return for constitutional rights for Turkey’s estimated 25 million Kurds, which the Turkish State as well as the international community had warmly welcomed. 

But Ocalan himself has described the weekend clashes from his Imrali Island prison as, “A great provocation against the peace process.” Others have followed suit, including Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who on Sunday also accused “provocateurs” for the clashes as trying to damage the peace process with the PKK. "These are actions perpetrated by those who want to hurt the process. However, we will continue the process without falling into this trap," Erdoğan said.

The BDP Deputy in Hakari Province, Adil Zozani, has urged a parliamentary inquiry into the killings, confirming that the slayed were certainly local Kurdish industrial workers not protesters and condemned Turkish media outlets for having misled people about the events.

“The media deliberately broadcasts last year’s events to prejudicially describe the murdered vulnerable workers as, ‘terrorists’,” he said, adding that the “provocative” acts of the police and the “unacceptable” crackdown, “As they have been very similar all over the country, seem to justify the prevalent opinion that the events are aimed at sabotaging the peace process in Turkey.”

Despite Erdoğan showing that he somehow shares Ocalan’s stance that the events are a “provocation”, the PKK still holds Erdoğan and his government responsible for killing of the two Kurdish workers and the violence that followed, comparing the murder in a statement to the Roboski Massacre of Kurdish civilians back in December 2011. 

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