A New Black Box of State Violence and Impunity in Kurdistan & Turkey

Contributed by a group of anthropologists working on Turkey (names withheld for security purposes)

On August 31, 2017, at around 3:30 pm, a Turkish armed unpersonned aerial vehicle (A-UAV) bombed four civilians in a picnic area near Oğul, a Kurdish village in  Hakkari Province. Two of the civilians, Mehmet Temel (35) and Ismail Aydın (43), were heavily injured. The other two, Ibrahim Sak (54) and Musa Tarhan (54), survived the A-UAV’s attack with minor injuries. Soon after they were taken to hospital by the other villagers Mehmet Temel lost his life in the hospital. Later in the day, the Turkish Interior Minister announced that four “terrorists” were killed in a military operation near Oğul village, but did not mention any civilians being targeted. The following day, the Hakkari Governorate confirmed the attack on civilians, but called civilians “collaborators” and accused them of “having a meeting with the terrorists.” Calling the civilians collaborators without a court decision, the governorate violated the presumption of innocence and justified the attack. After being released from the hospital, the survivors of the attack were detained and accused of abetting terrorism.

Figure 1: A photo taken few months before Mehmet Temel is killed. He is in the picnic area with his family. Source http://www.bbc.com/turkce/haberler-turkiye-41211984


Sezgin Tanrıkulu, a parliamentarian from the main opposition party, criticized the A-UAV operation and asked for an effective criminal investigation regarding the possible rights violations. Süleyman Soylu, the minister of interior affairs, and a choir of pro-Erdoğan media outlets immediately reacted to Tanrıkulu and blamed him for supporting terrorism. Eventually, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan verbally attacked Tanrıkulu, and Ankara Head Prosecutor’s office started an unconstitutional criminal investigation against Tanrıkulu, who is also a renowned human rights lawyer and former head of Bar Association in Diyarbakır, the largest predominantly Kurdish-populated province in Turkey.

There is a strong suspicion that the attack had violated Turkish law, the European Convention on Human Rights and other international covenants signed by Turkey. As the attack was conducted through an A-UAV, none of the targeted individuals was called upon and warned to surrender according to the statements by the survivors. According to both Turkish law and international law, the use of physical violence must be proportional and the state authorities cannot use physical violence to kill besides the very exceptional cases of self-defense. Neither the Turkish Interior Ministry nor Hakkari Governorate reported that the state authorities were attacked before or during the A-UAV’s attack. The use of physical force seemed to be neither proportionate nor absolutely necessary. Although the attack needs to be investigated thoroughly, human rights defenders are concerned that there will not be an effective and accountable criminal investigation regarding the claims of human rights violations because of the state of emergency declared after the coup attempt of July 15, 2016.

Even before the emergency rule, the Turkish judiciary was reluctant in conducting effective and accountable criminal investigation regarding the rights violations committed by state authorities. On December 28, 2011, a Turkish F-16 warplane killed 34 Kurdish smugglers crossing the Turkish-Iraqi border. With the help of an AUV, the military officers detected a group of people crossing the border with mules. They identified the group as “terrorists” infiltrating into Turkey and ordered the Turkish fighter jets to annihilate the group. Later it came up that 34 people who were killed that day were the smugglers from a nearby border village. Following the criminal investigation, the Turkish prosecutor decided that the military officers made an “inevitable mistake while performing their duty” and “accidentally” killed the smugglers based on misinterpretation of both terrorism threat intelligence and aerial images provided by the UAVs. Thus, the criminal prosecution for the case was dismissed.

The use of the A-UAVs and the recent attack also indicate a new trend in state violence in Kurdistan and Turkey. In late 2016, Turkish authorities started using semi-autonomous armed UAV in addition to unarmed UAVs. These A-UAVs can autonomously take off, fly, and detect potential targets under the supervision of the remote pilot operator. The drone requires the remote pilot to make the final decision to attack. Compared to the personned aerial vehicles, it is much cheaper and faster to fly the UAVs and there is no risk of losing the pilot. In this way, the UAVs significantly extend the state’s capacity to use physical violence. The armed UAVs also create a new human-nonhuman assemblage through which impunity is produced and maintained for the state violence. Since the remote pilots and their superiors are involved in the final decision to use of physical violence, they must be held responsible for the extrajudicial executions they commit. Yet, the use of technological imaging systems which the military officers would rely on making the final decision to kill appears as an additional source of “inevitable mistake.” In criminal investigations, the remote pilot operators and other state officers can always blame the drone’s imagining systems for extrajudicial violence to avoid criminal responsibility. Through the extensive and unchecked use of drones, we witness the emergence of a new black box of state violence and impunity in Kurdistan and Turkey.