The mystery of Kurdish politician Hursit Kulter has renewed concern the Turkish state is forcibly disappearing people with impunity. His case highlights an all-out assault on the Kurdish movement.
Where is Hursit Kulter? The last message the Kurdish politician sent to his family carried an ominous tone, one that has human rights organizations concerned he has joined hundreds of other people disappeared by Turkish security forces over the years.
“Forgive me with your blessings,” the 33-year-old texted to his family from the besieged city of Sirnak on May 27. “There is not much time left. Give my regards to everybody.”
As a provincial executive of the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), Kulter was an advocate for Kurdish rights and autonomy. He had decided to stay with his people during an open-ended curfew implemented in March in Sirnak as security forces battled Kurdish militants.
Two witnesses reported seeing Special Operations teams take him into an armored vehicle on May 27. Several days later, a Twitter account believed to be associated with Special Operations in the region shared a post saying he was being interrogated. The tweet was later deleted and the account closed.
Turkish officials deny Kulter was ever arrested and claim to not know his whereabouts.
Southeastern Turkey has witnessed a surge in violence since a two-year ceasefire and peace process between the state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) broke down last year, leaving thousands of security forces and guerrillas killed and at least 300 civilians dead.
In response to PKK militants and armed youth groups occupying urban areas in the southeast and declaring autonomy, Turkish security forces used heavy-handed tactics and open-ended curfews to root out the rebels. Several towns have been heavily destroyed and more than a million people displaced.
Widespread abuses during months of counter-terror operations in southeast Turkey have been reported.
“We have received repeated and serious allegations of ongoing violations of international law as well as human rights concerns, including civilian deaths, extrajudicial killings and massive displacement,” UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said earlier this week.
The Turkish state has a troubling history of forced disappearances, extrajudical murders and torture during the height of the PKK conflict in the 1990s. During the so-called “dirty war,” thousands of people were extrajudicially killed, disappeared and tortured with impunity.
Kulter’s case raises concerns the state is again resorting to the method of forced disappearances as it prosecutes its war against the Kurdish movement. In Sirnak alone, more than 200 people were disappeared after being arrested in the 1990s. The last case in the province was in 2001, when two Kurdish politicians disappeared.
“Fifteen years later, it raises a lot of concern that a young Kurdish politician all of a sudden disappears when only security forces are present and nobody is allowed to go out on the streets,” Sebla Arcan of the Turkish Human Rights Association’s Commission for Enforced Disappearance under Custody told DW.
All applications for state authorities to investigate have gone unanswered, human rights organizations and Kurdish politicians say. An independent investigation is also not possible due to an ongoing curfew in Sirnak, despite the government calling an end to military operations in June.
“The government should explain what happened to Hursit Kulter. If he was arrested, then why the denial? If he wasn’t arrested, then his whereabouts should be investigated. Why does the government just remain silent?” Arcan said.
Adding to the sense of growing impunity, the Turkish parliament in June passed a law granting immunity from prosecution to members of the security forces conducting counter-terror operations.
Leyla Birlik, a parliamentarian from Sirnak for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is close to the DBP, said she is blocked by security forces from entering the city and judges, prosecutors, police and the governor ignore her calls for any investigation.
She told DW by phone from a internally displaced persons camp outside Sirnak that 70 percent of the city had been destroyed and 60,000 civilians forced out. Meanwhile, scores of wounded people were not allowed to be evacuated to a local hospital and were left to die during the curfew earlier this year. “This is in effect a form of extrajudicial execution,” she said.
Activists and social media users have sought to keep Kulter’s case active, for example, through a campaign asking #HursitKulterNerede (#WhereisHursitKulter). The Saturday Mothers, a group of families of the forcibly disappeared and human-rights activists peacefully protesting on Istanbul’s main pedestrian thoroughfare every week for nearly two decades, has also taken up his cause.
In some ways, Kulter’s case has fallen by the wayside, becoming one questionable event among many as part of the Turkish state’s vigorous effort to clamp down on the Kurdish movement.
The assault on the Kurdish movement has gained momentum with sweeping emergency powers granted in the wake of July’s failed coup attempt, as the state goes after all of its enemies with massive purges.
What last year started as a hardened military response to the PKK has since warped into military intervention in northern Syria in part to thwart Kurdish gains there and an offensive against Kurdish politicians at home, most recently this week with the replacement of 24 elected Kurdish mayors over allegations of ties to the PKK.
“The government has launched a multi-pronged assault against the PKK, its political affiliates, and sympathizers, carrying its military battle for the first time to Syria as well,” Amberin Zaman, a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center think tank, told DW.
“The aim is to weaken the Kurdish movement to the point where the government feels it can impose rather than negotiate a solution,” she said. “It is not going to work, it’s proven unsustainable in the past.”
Since 1984, nearly 40,000 people have died in fighting between the Turkish state and PKK, which fights for greater political and cultural rights for Kurds.