By Melike Gul Demir
Tahir Elci was shot and killed during a 2015 press conference at a historic mosque in the old city of Diyarbakir, in south-eastern Turkey at the age of 49. His assassination came weeks after he spoke on television and suggested that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was an armed political organization, not a terrorist organization. He had, however, denounced PKK violence over the years.
Before his murder, Elci posted to his Twitter account saying that he had received death threats because of his televised comments defending the rebels. On October 20, 2015, he was detained by the police on charges of spreading “terrorist propaganda” for which he would have faced more than seven years in prison.
When he was shot dead days later in Diyarbakir after having been released pending trial. He was making a statement calling for end to violence between the Turkish state and the PKK when he was shot dead. His killer has not been identified.
At the press conference during which he was fatally shot, Elci called attention to the damage done to historic buildings during recent violence in the city, telling reporters, “We don’t want guns, clashes and operations in this historical area, which has been a cradle to many civilizations.” Violent clashes had damaged many historical places in the city and in the surrounding region. The climate of war between the Turkish military and the PKK had been exacerbated since July 2015. Many majority Kurdish cities such as Nusaybin, Cizre, Sur were placed under curfew, and hundreds of people, including women and children, died. Elci had called upon both sides for a ceasefire.
In an interview, Elci said of the backlash to his statements, “I have received hundreds of tweets threatening me with death. In some tweets they describe how they would kill me. They gave details. And we’ve also gotten many similar phone calls.”
Elci had been an influential activist and human rights lawyer since the 1990s, and the chairman of the bar association in the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir. He worked on important human rights cases and his opinion was held in high regard. Elçi knew about the violation of rights well, having himself suffered torture, and having heard from the victims whose rights he defended. He always defended justice through the legal process and within the law.
Following his assassination, protests broke out in Diyarbakir and across Turkey denouncing the murder. It has been over 500 days since the assassination of Tahir Elci, and it is still not clear who was behind the attack and there has been no detailed report about what led to the incident. Although the file on the investigation remains unsealed, there seem to be arbitrary episodes of secrecy concerning his files.