An ongoing struggle

Tahir Elçi, President of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, was fatally shot during a press conference in 2015. Rupert Wheeler and Tony Fisher honour his work and report on the struggle for human rights in Turkey

On 22 March 2016, the Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC) joined with the Law Society Human Rights Committee (LSHRC) to host an evening commemorating the life of Tahir Elçi, a prominent Turkish lawyer and human rights defender, who was fatally shot during a press conference last November in Diyarbakir, South Eastern Turkey. 

Tahir Elçi had become well known internationally for his commitment to the protection of minorities in Turkey. He was a skilled and tenacious lawyer, who throughout his career was a key figure in holding the Turkish state accountable in both the domestic and European courts.

In recent years, Elçi had been elected as the President of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, making substantial progress in promoting and protecting the independence of the profession in the face of a repressive political and social climate. Chaired by Kirsty Brimelow QC, the event (pictured below) heard from a distinguished panel consisting of Muharrem Erbey (Vice President of the Turkish Human Rights Association), Ali Has (Kurdish/British Solicitor Advocate), and Tony Fisher (Chair of the Law Society Human Rights Committee).

Holding the state to account

Elçi started his career in the early 1990s in Cizre, south eastern Turkey, an area with a large Kurdish majority. The people of Cizre were suffering frequent and grievous human rights violations at the hands of the authorities and states of emergency had been declared in many provinces, with security forces attempting to starve out the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party) through the destruction of villages; these acts were regularly accompanied by human rights violations. It is estimated that over 3,000 villages were destroyed, and there are numerous recorded cases of torture, disappearances and murder.

Domestic courts in Turkey were either unwilling or unable to deal properly with the human rights violations which were taking place, and could not be trusted to identify the true facts or make appropriate decisions. In order to deal with this, the European Commission of Human Rights took the almost unprecedented step of undertaking fact-finding hearings in Turkey. From 1996 onwards, these hearings were arranged in Diyarbakir and Ankara. Elçi was one of a number of young Kurdish lawyers who learnt to use the unfamiliar mechanism of the Commission to achieve justice and hold the state to account.

At the event, Fisher spoke of his involvement in a number of these proceedings: in particular, one which had been initiated by Tahir Elçi in 1993. The case involved the destruction of a village called Ormaniçi in February 1993 (also known as the Özkan case). The village had been stormed by Turkish soldiers who were looking for members of the PKK. During the course of the search, houses were razed to the ground, livestock were killed and over 200 villagers were forced to leave their homes. Men were made to march through the snow in their bare feet, and were then imprisoned and subject to torture. Many lost their feet due to cold conditions and consequent frostbite.

In an atmosphere of violence, oppression and fear created by the authorities, Elçi stood out as one of few lawyers who was willing to assist the victims of these atrocities in making claims to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Over the next 20 years he would take dozens of cases to the ECtHR, including those relating to torture, disappearances, arbitrary killings and bombings by the state. He was involved in a case before the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR, challenging the Turkish election threshold which requires a political party to win at least 10% of the vote before its members can take up a seat in parliament. This, Elçi argued, was designed to exclude the minority Kurds from securing representation, and had disenfranchised a substantial proportion of the population (up to 40% in some areas of Turkey).

As President of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, Elçi consistently supported fellow lawyers who faced criminal charges due to their association with, or representation of, the PKK, and was a key figure in arranging advocacy training for lawyers in Diyarbakir. Most recently, he authored a major report relating to atrocities committed by security forces during a curfew in Cizre imposed in September 2015.

Reprisals

Frequently, there were reprisals to Elçi’s legal actions. In November 1993, the Turkish authorities ordered his offices at Cizre to be raided. Security forces seized case files, correspondence, witness statements and photographs of those wounded. Elçi was himself detained by local police at Cizre, and later taken into custody at Diyarbakir. In the course of being interrogated about his involvement in the case and his relationship with the PKK, he was subjected to physical and psychological torture and threatened with death. At one stage the police simulated his execution, firing live rounds into the ground. Ultimately, Elçi was charged with offences relating to possession of illegal written materials, but the case against him was suspended in February 1994.

Together with a number of colleagues who had also suffered at the hands of the state forces, he later made an application to the ECtHR (App No. 23145/93). The court held that Turkey had violated Elçi’s rights under Art 3 (torture/ill treatment), Art 5 (liberty and security) and Art 8 (private life) of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is particularly striking that the court held that the physical and mental violence he had suffered was of such a serious and cruel nature as to justify a finding of torture in his case (as opposed merely to ill treatment).

The current situation in Turkey

In addition to commemorating Elçi’s courageous life as a lawyer, the event heard each of the speakers comment about the current situation in Turkey and the serious doubt about the willingness of courts to try cases fairly and to vindicate the rights of minorities. Whilst Turkey pays the damages ordered by the European courts, it was felt no real steps were being taken to address the underlying cause of the problems.

Those who attempted to promote the rule of law, whether journalists, academics or lawyers, regularly found themselves subject to criminal proceedings or police brutality.

In early March this year a press conference was held outside a court building where lawyers were being tried for representing a PKK member. Speakers made a statement asking the state to stop arresting their colleagues on unknown charges. They were accosted by riot police, suffered physical violence, and were forced to abandon their statement.

A recent report by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights reflects the ongoing problems facing Turkey. Whilst acknowledging the difficulties arising from the fight against terrorism, it asserted that this should not justify a departure from human rights and the rule of law. On visiting the site of Elçi’s murder, the Commissioner noted that the anti-terror operations in Sur had killed 50 terrorists, but led to the displacement of at least 20,000 people and the destruction of numerous homes. He raised concerns about the ability of the displaced to seek appropriate compensation. Similarly, the report underlined the ongoing concerns regarding freedom of expression in Turkey and attacks on human rights defenders. An intolerance of legitimate criticism of either the executive or the judiciary continues to result in an alarming number of seemingly unjustified arrests and prosecutions.

To join the BHRC please email: coordination@barhumanrights.org.uk

Contributors Rupert Wheeler, Bar Human Rights Committee and Tony Fisher, Law Society Human Rights Committee

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Author details: 
Rupert Wheeler

Rupert is a barrister who practises in criminal law and human rights at 23 Essex Street, London. He is a member of the Executive of the Bar Human Rights Committee.

Tony Fisher

Tony is Chair of the Human Rights Committee and senior partner at Fisher Jones Greenwood LLP. He has acted as an advocate in many cases in Strasbourg under the European Convention on Human Rights.