Turkish court finds no crimes against humanity in deadly military arson against Kurdish family

The Kurdish family massacred in 1993 (Photo: Rudaw)

A court in central Turkey has released its reasoned decision in the case of the mass murder of a Kurdish family in a deliberately lit fire in 1993, which stated that the military action does not amount to a crime against humanity, the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA) reported on Monday.

In its ruling the court cited a lack of sufficient evidence to prove that the “Vartinis massacre” was racially or politically motivated as well as the legal principle of non-retroactivity since crimes against humanity were not codified and criminalized in Turkish law until 2005.

The court also chose to adopt the statute of limitations of 30 years that was in effect at the time of the alleged crime’s commission, instead of the 45 years stipulated in the 2005 legislation, citing another legal principle that if a legal clause is amended after an act is committed, the defendant is entitled to benefit from its more favorable version.

The Vartinis trial concerned the torching of a house belonging to a Kurdish family in eastern Turkey that claimed the lives of nine people. It was dropped in late 2023 due to the expiration of the 30-year statute of limitations.

Two former gendarmes, a noncommissioned officer and a special forces commander were on trial for allegedly setting fire to the building.

The family was reportedly suspected of aiding and abetting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed separatist group designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey and much of the international community.

Aysel Öğüt, the only survivor, had launched the litigation over the incident in which she lost her parents as well as seven siblings.

Kadir Karaçelik, a lawyer representing Öğüt, has appealed the decision with the Supreme Court of Appeals (Yargıtay), the report said.

In the appeal Karaçelik accused the Kırıkkale court of failing to conduct an effective investigation and dragging out the trial for years. He also cited European Court of Human Rights precedents that ruled out the statute of limitations for alleged perpetrators of torture and other grave human rights violations.

In November a trial hearing had revealed that Bülent Karaoğlu, one of the former gendarmes wanted for allegedly torching the house, causing the death of the family, had been collecting his pension despite being sought under an INTERPOL Red Notice since 2021.

Even though the incident took place in 1993, the trial did not start until 2003 as the authorities initially had maintained that the PKK was behind the fire.

The prosecutors sought prison terms of between 180 and 225 years for each defendant.

An escalation between PKK insurgents and the Turkish military in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in a sharp deterioration of the human rights situation in the country’s predominantly Kurdish east and southeast, causing the death and displacement of civilian populations and the destruction of urban areas.

In times of combat, Turkish authorities frequently declared a local state of emergency, which granted security forces expanded powers and barred media outlets from reporting from the area.

In addition to rights violations committed by the security forces, the period saw the enforced disappearance of hundreds of people in police custody, for which there still has been no accountability.

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