The emergence of legal Kurdish parties and the frequent occurrence of death squad-style political assassinations were two developments in Turkey’s political life during the 1990s. For the first time in Turkey’s history, there was a group in the parliament that represented — if only implicitly — Kurdish nationalist opinion and systematically protested humans rights violations against Kurds. At the same time, a number of influential Kurdish political and community leaders were killed, many of their deaths described as “murders by unknown actors” because the police usually failed to find the assassins.

The novel experience of legal Kurdish political representation — first by the People’s Labor Party (HEP) and, following its ban, its successors the Democratic Party (DEP) and People’s Democratic Party (HADEP) — ended in 1994. In March of that year, the immunity of six Kurdish deputies was lifted. They were taken from Parliament to prison and found themselves charged with separatist subversion, facing a possible death penalty. Three months later, the DEP was also banned; a number of its remaining deputies fled to Europe, while the others were also jailed. In the end, all were given long prison sentences.

During the four years that the HEP and DEP existed (1990-1994), no fewer than 64 of their leaders and prominent members were assassinated. [1] The police authorities never found their murderers who, at least in some cases, appear to have acted with the connivance, or worse, of the police or intelligence services. While Kurds comprised a considerable number of these “murders by unknown actors,” others targeted for assassination included human rights activists and journalists. [2] In 1991, a total of 31 persons were killed by “unknown actors”; in 1992 not less than 360. [3] The peak year was 1993, when according to the Human Rights Associations of Turkey, 510 persons fell victim to such assassinations.

Kurdish Political Parties

The HEP, established in March 1990, was Turkey’s first-ever legal Kurdish party. Its founders were former deputies of the Social Democrat Populist Party (SHP) from Kurdish provinces who had been expelled from that party after they attended a conference on the Kurds in Paris in October 1989. These professional politicians were joined by prominent Kurdish lawyers and human rights activists, many of whom enjoyed great respect and popularity in Kurdish towns due to their courageous work. Almost all the parties represented in Turkey’s parliament had some Kurdish deputies, but these usually refrained from expressing themselves as Kurds; at best they attempted to dispense patronage at their local constituencies. The HEP showed itself to be a radically different party. Even though for legal reasons it could not openly call itself a Kurdish party or be very outspoken on the Kurdish question, its platform was based implicitly on Kurdish nationalism. Through a temporary reunion with the SHP in the October 1991 general elections, the HEP won 16 seats in parliament, thus becoming a serious embarrassment for the government. Here was a group of politicians who clearly enjoyed strong popular support among those Kurds whom the government had alienated from itself and who were, at the same time, willing to work within the existing legal framework. Such a group could, theoretically, play a key role in finding a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question. The government, however, was unable or unwilling to take this road, and did all in its powers to get rid of the legal Kurdish parties, accusing them of being no more than a front for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which was waging a violent guerrilla war against the state.

The HEP in fact represented a broad spectrum of political activism. While the PKK announced its support for the HEP, so did other Kurdish political movements. No doubt many members of the HEP and its successors sympathized with the PKK; most of them refrained from criticizing the PKK in public, although they may have had doubts about some of its methods. Nonetheless, the HEP and DEP represented potential alternatives to the PKK and certainly to its violent methods. Thus the authorities’ response to these parties only strengthened the conviction among Kurds that there was no third alternative to either complete submission or armed struggle.

The imprisonment of DEP deputies attracted international attention, and led to some half-hearted (and inconsequential) posturing by the European Parliament. [4] But the unconventional methods by which dozens of other, mostly local, HEP and DEP politicians were removed from the scene received much less notice.

The first assassination by “unknown actors” was that of Vedat Aydın, a lawyer and human rights activist in Diyarbakır who became the HEP’s provincial chairperson. In July 1991 he was taken from his home by men whom he believed to be police officers. He never returned. A few days later his body was found on a garbage heap far out of town. His funeral turned into a mass demonstration of support for the HEP — and then into a bloodbath as security forces started firing into the mass of demonstrators. The police denied that he had ever been arrested.

While Aydın’s assassination was the first, the most shocking and, in many respects, most revealing case was the murder of the DEP deputy for Mardin province, Mehmet Sincar, in September 1993. At the time, Sincar was leading a DEP fact-finding mission to investigate the wave of unsolved political killings that had until then taken the lives of 53 members and local leaders of the HEP and DEP. Police had escorted him from Diyarbakır to Batman but, for reasons never made clear, lifted their protection, allowing the assassin to do his work. Together with Sincar, a member of the board of the local DEP branch, Metin Özdemir, was killed and the deputy for Batman, Nizamettin Toğuç, was wounded.

This was the first time that a member of Turkey’s parliament had been assassinated in the streets, yet no serious efforts were made to investigate the murder. [5] There was no state burial nor any other official ceremony for Sincar. The authorities did not even allow Sincar’s political friends to organize a funeral for him in Ankara, where the police had flown his body. Contrary to custom, they refused to release the body; it was kept in a morgue in Ankara and from there taken by officials directly to Sincar’s birthplace Kızıltepe, where he was buried in the presence of less than a dozen people.

Apart from the DEP deputies, only four other members of parliament, all belonging to the SHP, went to offer their condolences to Sincar’s family. Leyla Zana, the DEP’s sole woman parliamentarian, became the target of yet another attack when she paid a condolence visit to the Sincar family in Kızıltepe. Despite a massive police presence that day, a bomb exploded in the house where Zana stayed. (She escaped unharmed but four other women in the house were wounded.)

“Unknown Actors”

DEP members were only one category of persons targeted by the death squads that have been active in eastern Turkey during the past few years. Other locally influential persons of Kurdish nationalist persuasion(s) and human rights activists were also prime targets, as were journalists and others working with the pro-Kurdish press. Among the hundreds of people killed in the early 1990s, nine journalists and four distributors of pro-Kurdish publications were assassinated in 1992 alone. [6] In 1993, according to human rights groups’ figures, six journalists and eight distributors lost their lives. [7]

In the case of the assassination of Mehmet Sincar, the police have refused to act on eyewitness accounts that identified the alleged murderer; DEP sources claim that not a single witness was heard by the police. In some of the other cases too, there are signs that implicate the police or intelligence services in the killings. Indeed, it is widely believed that many of the killings by “unknown actors” were carried out by persons acting on the instructions of or in cooperation with the police or, in particular, the intelligence service of the gendarmerie. The latter service was only established in the late 1980s but soon became notorious for its cloak-and-dagger operations and for its involvement in the heroin trade.

In Diyarbakır and Batman, numerous people were allegedly killed by members of the militant Muslim Hizbullah movement, a section of which became embroiled in a sort of blood feud with the PKK. The Hizbullah (Party of God), most of whose members are also Kurdish, was originally firmly opposed to the existing political order, though for reasons other than those of the PKK. The section which clashed with the PKK, however, appears to have offered its cooperation to counter-insurgency operatives in the police and/or gendarmerie forces. Turbaned, bearded and in baggy trousers (the outfit favored by these conservative Muslims), and armed with sticks and butchers’ knives, they frequently attacked meetings of young Kurdish nationalists and raided cafes and other gathering places. The use of these knives for such murders came to be recognized almost as a signature. Nevertheless, Hizbullah members were rarely arrested, even those whom witnesses said they had recognized in broad daylight. The general population of such towns as Diyarbakır (who are mostly Kurds) became convinced that these Hizbullah killers acted with the connivance or even on the instructions from the cloak-and-dagger departments of Turkey’s counter-insurgency forces, popularly known as “kontragerilla.” For this reason the pro-Kurdish and leftist press rechristened them as “Hizb-i Kontra,” a name that soon became popular. According to reports in the leftist press, at least some Hizbullah members went to a police shooting range in Diyarbakır for firearms practice. [8]

Parliament Investigates the Killings

The assassinations became a national political issue when a number of prominent (non-Kurdish) secularist journalists and politicians were similarly assassinated by “unknown actors” believed, in this case, to be Muslim extremists. [9] In response to the assassination of the well-known and respected journalist Ugur Mumcu in January 1993, parliament appointed a commission to investigate the entire phenomenon of these unsolved murders. The five major parties were represented in this commission, but the DEP was not.

It took the commission 20 months to complete its investigations, but its report was never officially released. Although the draft report cautiously avoids drawing controversial conclusions, the conservative members of the commission believed that its contents would be too damaging to the prestige of the state and they, therefore, refused to submit the report to Parliament. Much later, the commission’s draft report was published by a small leftist party. [10] In spite of its cautious formulations, the commission obliquely accuses state organs of involvement in many of the “unknown actor” murders.

The draft report begins with the observation that the unresolved murders, especially those in which the accusations of police involvement are credible, have given the PKK a powerful propaganda argument which it has cleverly used. The authorities have a public relations problem. Contrary to general belief, the report states, some of the “actors” of these murders have in fact been found and punished, but the population is hardly aware of this. Particularly damaging, according to the report, is the fact that the names of some murder suspects have been published in the press and are widely known among the population, yet the prosecutors have never undertaken an investigation. This, the report continues, confirms the impression that the state is directly or indirectly involved in these murders.

In several cases it could be established that the “unknown actors” of a murder were in fact village guards (korucu), who were confident that they could kill with impunity. [11] In one case where the village guards were apprehended after a killing, they in fact claimed to have acted on instructions from the gendarmerie. In the case of Hizbullah, the commission’s report also strongly suggested that there was at least connivance, if not more direct involvement, of police forces in their murders. “Whereas the PKK, which has established its urban committees, is not capable of carrying out any actions in the city by day, the so-called Hizbullah activists, on the other hand, freely carry out (violent) actions in broad daylight without being arrested. This causes (the local people) to suspect the state of being involved, and the PKK successfully fans these suspicions.” [12] The commission identified yet another type of assassin allegedly acting on police or gendarmerie instructions, the “confessant” (itirafci), referring to former Kurdish or leftist activists who have made a full confession and, in exchange for a reduction of their sentence, cooperate with the police authorities. One of these “confessants,” Alaattin Kanat, who is mentioned by name in the commission’s report, appears to have carried out several assassinations while officially in prison. The report mentions that during the 22 months he spent in jail, Kanat was allowed to leave no less than 11 times, “in order to assist the police.” [13] The respected daily Cumhuriyet reported assassinations allegedly carried out by him during such brief “vacations.” Nonetheless, his death sentence was thus commuted to life imprisonment, and subsequently reduced to only a few years. The commission report notes the widespread belief among the population of southeastern Turkey that many of the unsolved murders were committed by such “confessants.” [14]

With the exception of the National Intelligence Service, the draft report is critical of the security forces in southeastern Turkey. In spite of all their assets, not only did they fail to suppress the PKK in the early stages of the movement, but they may be held responsible for the growth and popularity of the movement. The commission’s report reserves its most scathing criticism for the gendarmes. It notes dryly that “our commission has not been able to understand what gendarmerie’s activities in the region are,” and that it carries out intelligence and other operations for which it has never been authorized and about which it does not inform the proper authorities. The widespread distrust of the authorities among the population is a consequence of the gendarmerie’s operations. People are convinced that gendarmes have made use of “confessants” and been involved in various extra-legal activities, including arms and drug smuggling. [15]

Is the Death Squad Season Over?

Since 1993, the frequency of assassinations by “unknown actors” has gradually declined. Whereas the Human Rights Association reported a total of 510 such murders for 1993, the comparable figures for 1994 and 1995 were 423 and 99, respectively. This decline does not reflect, however, a general improvement in the human rights situation and in public security in southeastern Turkey. Rather, much of it is due to a gradual relaxation of the conflict between Hizbullah and PKK sympathizers. No doubt another reason for the decline is that there are fewer candidates for assassination left. In this respect the assassinations of 1992 and 1993 have been quite successful: There are fewer opposition politicians and human rights activists left in the region today, and they operate much more cautiously. There are practically no journalists reporting from the region, as they have been under threat from both sides in the conflict, [16] and the pro-Kurdish press has little or no distribution capability in the region. Popular support for the PKK, which in 1993 was voiced very openly in towns like Diyarbakır, is now much more muted.


[1] A list of their names is published in A. Osman Olmez, Turkiye Siyasetinde DEP Depremi (An Earthquake in Turkey’s Politics: DEP) (Ankara: Doruk, 1995), pp. 465-466. This book gives an excellent account of the events surrounding the first two legal Kurdish parties, up to the ban of DEP in June 1994.
[2] Cumulative figures on human rights violations in 1993 released by the Human Rights Association. The figures quoted here do not include victims of assaults by guerrilla units or security forces, and they also exclude disappearances, extrajudicial executions and deaths under torture.
[3] Figures for 1991 and 1992 compiled by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey.
[4] The lifting of the Kurdish parliamentarians’ immunity and their subsequent political trial clearly violated European norms. Members of the European parliament repeatedly demanded the release of their colleagues as a precondition for their agreeing to Turkey’s joining the European customs union. Other interests prevailed, however, and in December 1995 the European parliament voted for Turkey’s membership in the customs union without Turkey having made any significant political or human rights reforms.
[5] Mehmet Sincar’s companions in fact mentioned the name of a person whom they suspected of involvement in the murder, but he was not even interrogated. DEP sources claim that no significant witnesses were even heard. The authorities state, however, that 12 persons were arrested.
[6] Serdar Celik, Teure Wahrheit: Der Bericht von Özgür Gündem 1993 (Cologne: GNN Verlag, 1994), 37-9.
[7] “Human Rights Violations in 1993,” summary statistics published by IHD in January 1994; Helsinki Watch, “Turkey: Censorship by Assassination Continues” (New York, February 1994).
[8] See for instance the report in the left-wing weekly Gerçek, May 14, 1994, allegedly based on confessions of a former Hizbullah member.
[9] These were law professor Muammer Aksoy, Kemalist woman politician and lecturer Bahriye Üçok, and the journalists Çetin Emeç and Uğur Mumcu.
[10] Draft Report of the Parliamentary Commission to Investigate the Killings by Unknown Actors, Istanbul, July 1995).
[11] The village guards are a paramilitary force recruited from among Kurdish tribesmen to “protect” villages against the PKK. They have become a major factor in the guerrilla war, numbering around 60,000. They take part in military operations alongside army units and special forces but have been allowed to steal, kill and rape in neighboring villages with impunity.
[12] Draft Report, p. 79.
[13] Ibid., p. 99.
[14] Ibid., p. 98. After DEP deputy Mehmet Sincar was murdered, his companions reported that they had seen the same Alaattin Kanat in a police car that day, and that they were convinced that he was involved in the murder. Olmez, pp. 286-287, 292.
[15] Ibid., pp. 124-125. The report in fact attributes so much of the blame to the gendarmerie, and so little to National Intelligence, that one wonders whether the latter service helped in drafting it.
[16] In October 1993, the PKK informed journalists that, because of their overall pro-state attitudes and their lack of solidarity with the much-harassed pro-Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem, they were no longer allowed to work in the region and had to close down their newspapers’ offices there. They took this warning seriously and left. See Yılmaz Odabaşı, neydoğu’da Gazeteci Olmak (Being a Journalist in the Southeast) (Istanbul: Kaynak, 1994), pp. 159-77. Odabaşı, who worked in Diyarbakir for several leftist papers, also reports extensively on the pressure placed on journalists by the authorities, secret police and Hizbullah.

How to cite this article:

Martin Van Bruinessen "Turkey’s Death Squads," Middle East Report 199 (Summer 1996).

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