Protests erupted in several Turkish cities after a well-known Kurdish lawyer and human rights activist was killed along with two police officers on Saturday in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir.
Tahir Elci, who was president of Diyarbakir Bar Association, died when gunmen clashed with security forces following a press conference. At least 10 people were injured, including journalists.
The exact circumstances of the shooting remain unclear. Video footage from the scene shows Elci, wearing a grey suit, crouching as plain-clothed policemen fire pistols and take cover behind a car. Seconds later, a presumed attacker sprints past as the officers shoot at him. Elci is then seen lying face down on the pavement with blood coming from his head.
An initial forensic report said he had died when a single bullet fired from long range hit him in the back of the neck. One policeman was killed at the scene and another died from his injuries after being taken to hospital.
Interior Minister Efkan Ala said in a press briefing that the shootout began when attackers fired on security forces from inside a car. But some opposition figures alleged that Elci had been deliberately targeted by the state. The Diyarbakir Bar Association described his death as a "cowardly assassination" in a press statement, while the pro-Kurdish HDP party said he had been "viciously murdered," and urged supporters to "raise their voice" in protest.
Pro-government media outlets, including Sabah Daily and the state-owned Anadolu Agency, immediately blamed the militant Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) for the deaths, but the independent Dogan news agency quoted an eyewitness as saying that a man with a beard had shot at Tahir and his associates.
Pro-Kurdish activists have been targeted in three deadly bombings since June, including one that killed 103 dpeople ead at a peace rally in Ankara part-organized by the HDP. The Islamic State (IS) is believed to have been responsible.
Elci was an outspoken critic of the Turkish government. He was charged with terrorist propaganda last month after saying live on CNN Turk that the PKK were not a terrorist organization but an armed political movement. He was released pending trial, but a prosecutor demanded the maximum possible sentence of seven and a half years. The remarks also provoked fury among Turkish nationalists, and in a subsequent interview with the New York Times Elci said he had been receiving daily death threats.
Following news of his killing, angry but peaceful protesters gathered in Istanbul's Galatasaray Square holding pictures of Elci and shouting anti-government slogans. Riot police quickly dispersed the demonstration with tear gas, rubber bullets, and a water cannon, pursuing participants into the Tarlabasi neighborhood nearby and firing more tear gas after them. Protests also took place elsewhere in the country, including Izmir and Ankara, the Turkish capital.
Hundreds have died in recent months due increased violence in Turkey's restive and predominantly Kurdish southeast. The government launched a two-pronged "war on terror" in July claimed to target both the PKK and IS. But the campaign has focused largely on the militant Kurds, and attack jets have bombed their positions in Turkey and neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan. The PKK launched a number of assaults on army and police targets in response, threatening a return to the bloody three-decade insurgency it waged against the Turkish government until a landmark 2013 ceasefire agreement.
Elci repeatedly spoke out against violence from both the state and Kurdish militants. The press conference held immediately before his death was convened to speak out against recent fighting in the area. Elci said it should be rid of "guns, clashes and operations."
Elci was one of Turkey's most prominent human rights lawyers, and had spent more than two decades representing victims of violence and violations at the hands of security forces, including taking cases to the European Court of Human Rights against Turkey. He had also worked closely with international human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Elci was involved in representing three VICE News journalists — British citizens Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury, as well as Iraqi Mohammed Ismael Rasool — after they were arrested by Turkish authorities on August 27 while reporting in Diyarbakir and charged with baseless terrorism offenses. Hanrahan and Pendlebury were released a few days later, but Rasool remains in pretrial detention, held in a maximum-security prison in the southern city of Adana. Elci had remained as lead lawyer on his case.
"We are shocked and saddened by the senseless killing of leading lawyer and human rights defender Tahir Elci in Diyarbakir today," a VICE spokesperson said in a statement. "Tahir was an eminent figure in Turkey's legal system and was involved in representing three VICE News journalists arrested while reporting in the region. One of those journalists, Mohammed Rasool, remains unjustly detained after three months, with the charge of 'assisting a terrorist organization' leveled against him. Our thoughts and condolences go out to his family, friends, and colleagues."
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