As photos of the naked and bloodied corpse of a female Kurdish militant recently trended on Twitter, women's rights groups in Turkey reeled at an act of sexualized torture committed by Turkish police, who also allegedly leaked the images.
The pro-Kurdish group Save Kobane identified the body as Kevser Elturk, known by her nom de guerre Ekin Van. Elturk was a commander in the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), an organization that has fought an armed campaign for an independent Kurdish state since 1984 in the area where Turkey, Syria, and Iraq meet, and which has recently been instrumental in repelling advances in the region by Islamic State (IS) militants. Turkey, NATO, and the United States have classified the PKK as a terrorist organization.
Elturk was killed in clashes with Turkish security forces near the town of Varto in eastern Mus Province on August 10. The images of her remains and a description provided by those who later prepared her body for burial indicate that she was stripped of her uniform, dragged by the neck with a rope through town, and abandoned in the town square.
On August 16, the governor of Mus confirmed that security forces killed Elturk and declared that authorities were launching an investigation to determine who took the photos and distributed them on social media. His statement said nothing about prosecuting those who stripped and tortured her.
When VICE News contacted the office of the Mus governorate, they offered no further comment. The Congress of Free Women, a Kurdistan-based women's group, is preparing to sue the state.
Elturk died in one of many firefights that have occurred since a two-year peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK collapsed in late July. The development followed an IS attack on Kurdish activists in Suruc who had met to plan the reconstruction of Kobane, a Kurdish border town that has become a symbol of resistance in the fight against IS. The bombing killed 33 people and injured over 100 others.
The PKK blamed Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for abetting the attack, and hostilities between the PKK and the Turkish state quickly renewed with force.
A Turkish state news agency reported on Friday that security-force data shows that at least 771 PKK members and approximately 50 Turkish police and military members have died since July 22. The entire conflict has claimed more than 40,000 lives.
The treatment of Elturk's body has enraged and united women's and peace activists across Turkey, while also illustrating the peculiar contours of the fight for Kurdish self-determination amid the struggle to defeat IS.
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Kurdish forces in the region, particularly the Peshmerga in Iraq and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, have fought against IS and consolidated territory in northern Syria. Turkey attempted to block PKK members from crossing into Syria to aid in the fighting, fearing that international praise of their effort against IS would benefit their cause.
The PKK and the People's Democratic Party (HDP), a leftish and Kurdish-backed political party in Turkey, accuse the government of supporting IS by turning a blind eye to their jihadi transit route through Turkey. After IS attacked the activists in Suruc, the PKK retaliated by bombing a police station.
Some women's rights activists see the barbarism of IS reflected in the treatment of Elturk's body.
"They are taking the idea of extreme sharia law from ISIS," Isil Kurt, a founding member of the Turkish advocacy group We Will Stop Women Murders, told VICE News, using an alternative name for IS.
'For years, this state has tried to scare us with rape, harassment, and killing. In the face of all of this, we will continue digging our trenches.'
In reality, sexual violence against Kurdish adversaries in Turkey has a long history. A Turkish state commission detailed the institutional torture that took place in Diyarbakir Prison dating to the 1980s, including sexual violations of female and male prisoners. A 2003 report by Amnesty International detailed the rape and harassment of Kurdish women in custody at the hands of state officials during that period.
Amed Dicle, news editor of pro-Kurdish Sterk TV, grew up during the height of the PKK conflict in eastern Turkey. He believes that past sexual abuses of captives, which he personally witnessed, served to motivate female fighters today.
"Most of the young women who were abused went to the mountains to become guerrillas," he wrote to VICE News.
Reports in international media over the past year have lionized the efforts of female PKK fighters in Syria and Iraq. The rapper Helly Luv, dubbed the "Kurdish Lady Gaga" and filmed wearing her mother's fatigues on the front lines of the war with IS, has emerged as a pop symbol of women's ferocity and Marxist-inspired liberation.
"ISIS is very afraid of the women fighters," Dicle told VICE News, while suggesting that their glory also provoked the Turkish state. "By specifically torturing and abusing the dead body of a woman fighter, the Turkish state is sending the message, 'Look, these women aren't really that powerful.'" He added that the abuse of Elturk may also be an attempt to provoke the PKK to greater violence.
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In elections this past June, Erdogan sought a supermajority for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to pursue constitutional changes that would give him greater executive power. But voters dealt the AKP a massive blow by coming out in such numbers for the HDP that the party entered parliament for the first time, while the AKP lost its majority and required a coalition government to rule.
The AKP failed to build that coalition with either of the two main opposition parties, and rather than join with the HDP, Erdogan called on Friday for a snap legislative re-election in November that he hopes will strengthen AKP's position by eliminating the HDP. Meanwhile, he appears intent on discrediting the HDP by amplifying Kurdish hostilities.
PKK militias are taking the bait. The Patriotic Revolutionary Young Women (YDGK-H) called on all women to take revenge for the abuse of Elturk.
"For years, this state has tried to scare us with rape, harassment, and killing," the group's statement read. "In the face of all of this, we will continue digging our trenches."
While striking IS positions, Turkey has at the same time been bombing the PKK — an effort that has served to undermine the fight against IS, but which has so far been condoned by the US and NATO.
Omer Taspinar, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, told VICE News that US officials have lobbied the Turkish government behind the scenes for it to restore the Kurdish peace process. But he noted that he does not think that the furor over Elturk's death "will be enough for the US to change its policy of supporting Turkey in the fight against Kurdish terrorism."
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Reporting was supported by the Fuller Project for International Reporting. __Esra Mine Güngör and Ilina Talwar contributed reporting from Istanbul.