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Turkey: Plans for Northern Iraq raise concern

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(New York, March 5, 2003) The record of the Turkish military in combating Kurdish rebels at home raises serious concerns about its engagement in northern Iraq during or after any war, Human Rights Watch warned in a briefing paper released today.
The Human Rights Watch briefing paper, "Turkey and War in Iraq: Avoiding Past Patterns of Violation," recounts instances in which Turkish forces have violated international humanitarian law in past operations that took them over the border into northern Iraq. The briefing paper also recalls the gross violations committed during Turkey's thirteen-year conflict with the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) in southeastern Turkey.

During that conflict, the Turkish army tortured, killed and "disappeared" civilians, and burned hundreds of thousands of peasants out of their homes. The PKK (now known as KADEK) also massacred civilians and executed prisoners.

"If Turkish operations in Northern Iraq bear any resemblance to those in southeastern Turkey, we can expect to see a human rights disaster," said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "The best bet against a repeat performance would be to keep past abusers out of northern Iraq, and to make sure civilian monitors are on the ground to observe the military's conduct."

Human Rights Watch raised an alarm over possible deployment of Turkey's "village guards" in northern Iraq. The village guards are a paramilitary force made up of Kurdish villagers armed and paid by Turkey to fight the PKK. Village guards have been linked with drug smuggling, abduction, deliberate killings and "disappearance." Reliable reports suggest that the Turkish army is training several hundred village guards in the border area under the name of "Lightning Group" (Simsekler Grubu) for service in northern Iraq. The guards have been told that they may be required to work in the border camps established to prevent a refugee influx into Turkey.

Human Rights Watch said that this paramilitary force should under no circumstances enter northern Iraq as an armed force, much less be employed in managing refugees.

Human Rights Watch also specifically cautioned against deployment of the Bolu Commando Brigade, reportedly responsible for numerous violations of the laws of war in Turkey, including village destruction, indiscriminate fire, and "disappearance." The European Court of Human Rights found Turkey guilty of violations of the right to life in two clusters of "disappearances" reportedly involving soldiers from the Bolu Commando Brigade.

Any troops deployed by Turkey in northern Iraq should not include members of the security forces who have a past conviction for ill-treatment or torture (including those whose sentences were amnestied), extrajudicial execution or "disappearance," or who are under investigation or on trial for such offenses, Human Rights Watch said, and any troops sent to northern Iraq should exclude members of security forces implicated in violations by cases before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). These include 157 ECHR judgments against Turkey (in which the respondent Turkey was found responsible for ill-treatment, torture, or violations of the right to life as well as imprisoning people for their non-violent opinions). Over 1000 additional cases against Turkey are currently pending at the ECHR.

Human Rights Watch also underscored the importance of access for the media and independent monitors in northern Iraq, where the absence of effective government and judicial structures would offer little check against abuse. Turkey has in the past been resistant to such scrutiny of its military operations. In August 2000, Turkish jets bombed a group of pastoralists near Kendaxor, near Irbil, in northern Iraq, killing thirty-eight civilians, including women and children. Turkish military officials initially denied responsibility. A delegation organized by a collection of trade unions and professional bodies called the Diyarbakir Democracy Platform quickly traveled to the Iraqi border on August 29, 2000 intending to investigate, but was blocked at the frontier on the orders of the regional governor. According to news reports, Turkey later paid an undisclosed sum of money to the leader of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, to be forwarded as compensation to relatives of civilians killed in the Kendaxor bombing.

Human Rights Watch urged close scrutiny by countries that have sold weaponry to Turkey, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany. All four of these supplier states are, along with Turkey, NATO members and participants in the Wassenaar Arrangement, which promotes end-use monitoring of arms transfers, in the interest of international stability and security.

"Military assistance should not be a one-off decision to offload weaponry and then move on," Andersen said. "It should entail monitoring and reporting to ensure that the arms are used responsibly, in accordance with the laws of war."

Human Rights Watch takes no position on the legal justifiability of war, including possible U.S.-led military action in Iraq. Its work on Iraq focuses on continuing human rights abuses and, if there is a war, the compliance by all parties with international humanitarian law and protections for Iraqi civilians.

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