HRW on Kurdish villagers thrown from helicopter: Authorities may already be engaged in a coverup

Servet Turgut

In a statement on the case of two Kurdish villagers allegedly thrown from a military helicopter in Turkey’s eastern province of Van, Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed its concern yesterday that the authorities might already be engaged in covering up what happened to the men.

According to the human rights watchdog, the strong discrepancies between the Van governor’s statement and witness statements raise concerns about an ongoing coverup and this may prevent an effective and transparent investigation into the incident.

Osman Şiban (50) and Servet Turgut (55) were detained on September 11 in an army operation in the Çatak district of Van. Their families, who did not know their whereabouts for two days after their detention, finally found them in a hospital.

According to HRW a medical report attributed the fatal injuries of Turgut to an “unspecified fall” and the injuries of Şiban to a “fall from a high location/fall from a helicopter.” Turgut died in a hospital on September 30. Şiban was discharged on September 20.

“The Turkish authorities have an obligation to promptly, effectively, and transparently investigate how Servet Turgut and Osman Şiban were so seriously injured in the custody of security forces, and ultimately how Turgut died,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities’ highly unconvincing explanation that Turgut fell from a rocky place before his arrest flies in the face of statements by witnesses, who saw both men being arrested and taken away healthy in a helicopter.”

A statement by the Van Governor’s Office on September 21 claimed that Turgut fell from a rocky place and resisted arrest, but it didn’t mention Şiban’s injuries and accused the two of aiding the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed secessionist group listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and the United States. The prosecutor has imposed a secrecy order on the investigation file preventing the families’ lawyers from obtaining information.

Turgut’s family told Human Rights Watch that on September 11, Turgut was working on his farm in the Surik hamlet of Çığlıca village, in the district of Beytüşşebap, when a nearby clash between Turkish soldiers and the PKK resulted in the death of three soldiers and a PKK member.

The family alleges that officers apprehended Turgut and took him to a central place in the village, where all the men of the village were made to kneel down while the soldiers checked their IDs. Military officers asked villagers to identify Turgut since he did not have his ID with him. They also asked who Osman Şiban was.

According to the HRW statement, witnesses said military officers shouted at the villagers: “We are in pain. Who will we take it out on, if not you? We are going to burn your village down.” The villagers assumed the soldiers were referring to the soldiers’ deaths. The security forces then took Şiban and Turgut away in a helicopter.

The families of both men called nearby military bases over the next two days but were told that neither was in their custody. On September 13 Turgut’s brother told an officer on the phone he would inform the media if they refused to tell him where his brother was. He received a call 15 minutes later informing him that his brother and Şiban were in an intensive care unit of a state hospital in Van, 338 kilometers by road from their village.

When family members and their lawyers arrived at the hospital that day, they found police officers guarding the men’s rooms, preventing access. The lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the Van prosecutor was investigating the two men for allegedly “aiding and abetting” the PKK. Following a complaint by the lawyers, they said, the prosecutor had opened an investigation into allegations that the two men were tortured in custody.

A lawyer for Turgut and Şiban shared with Human Rights Watch relevant legal and medical documents. Medical reports show that military officers took the two men first to a private hospital in Van – Lokman Hekim  at around 7:13 p.m. on the day of their arrest. They had bruises on their faces, necks and torsos as well as humeral fractures and hemorrhages. The private hospital immediately transferred them to the state-run Van Teaching and Research Hospital due to the severity of their conditions. The state hospital placed both men in intensive care.

The Human Rights Watch statement says there are strong discrepancies between the Van Governor’s Office statement and witness statements. The governor’s office claims both men were apprehended in the same location, though witnesses say that about 15 military officers brought Turgut to the village while Şiban was having tea there with his brother.

Two days after Şiban was discharged from the hospital, three armored vehicles arrived at his house to take him to a former military hospital under orders from the prosecutor, who wanted to ascertain if he was well enough to testify. Doctors said that Şiban was disoriented, unable to discern the date or talk about the incident. Şiban left Van for his family residence in Mersin after the medical assessment and remains there. The prosecutor’s investigation into him is ongoing.

In its statement Human Rights Watch underlines that in recent years there have been other instances of security forces arresting and ill-treating civilians after military casualties sustained in clashes between the military and the PKK in the country’s Southeast.

“Turkey has an entrenched culture of impunity when it comes to abuses by the security forces, no matter how serious,” Williamson said. “A failure to effectively investigate this latest case, as in so many other cases of serious abuse, would not just deny justice to the two men and their families, but give a green light to Turkey’s security forces to keep on abusing.”

Under international law, Turkey has an obligation to investigate all deaths in custody and hold those responsible to account. The European Court of Human Rights has made clear, including in multiple cases against Turkey, that when an individual is taken into custody in good health and is injured in custody, any state party to the European Convention on Human Rights must provide a plausible explanation of how those injuries were caused and that the obligation to account for an individual’s death in custody is particularly stringent.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has said that protection of the right to life under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights requires an effective investigation into deaths in custody and that authorities should make public the findings, conclusions and recommendations of the investigation.

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