Nearly 30 years after a Kurdish family was massacred by security forces in Vartinis (Altınova), a village in Turkey’s eastern Muş (Mûş) province, a powerful figure involved in the attack -Gendarmerie Commander Captain Bülent Karaoğlu- remains free and the statute of limitations is close to expiring.
On 3 October 1993, Turkish security forces burnt down the home of the Öğüt family, after they were accused of “aiding and abetting an illegal terrorist organisation”. A total of nine people who were in the house died. Seven of them were children, the eldest a 12-year-old and the youngest just three years old.
Aysel Öğüt, the only family member who survived, has filed a series of criminal complaints stating that the house was set on fire by the soldiers. But the prosecutor’s office initially dismissed the case, suggesting that the house was burned by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Although a court has since acknowledged the involvement of Karaoğlu in the massacre, neither he nor anyone else has been arrested, and the statute of limitations in the case is due to expire on 3 October 2023.
Öğüt’s repeated filings eventually brought about an investigation process in 2006 that lasted eight years. A lawsuit was finally filed in 2013, twenty years after the massacre.
Three of the four defendants in the case have been acquitted. But during a hearing held on 21 September 2021, the court ordered the arrest of the gendarmerie commander of the time, arguing that he was the officer responsible for the operation. However, the arrest warrant for Karaoğlu has not yet been executed.
On 24 March, the court rejected the lawyers’ request to issue a red notice for Karaoğlu.
The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Law and Human Rights Commission issued a written statement regarding the Vartinis case, calling on the judiciary to punish those responsible before the statute of limitations is reached.
The HDP said the massacre had been covered up and those responsible had walked free, but vowed that their “political and legal struggle will continue until the perpetrators are punished.”
Burning villages was a common state practice in the 1990s, when the Kurdish conflict was at its peak and Turkish security forces were known to commit grave violations of human rights.
Most of the cases filed against serious human rights violations by the state, including the burning of Kurdish villages by security forces, the shooting of Kurdish civilians by Turkish soldiers, as well as extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances by Turkey’s Gendarmerie Intelligence and Counter-terrorism Department (JİTEM) -the clandestine organisation of the deep state of whom the state denied its existence for a long time- resulted with complete impunity.
Most cases launched against state actors involved in these violations, including the burning of villages and arbitrary torture and killings of civilians, have gone unpunished. In other cases, the perpetrators have not been brought before the judge.
Although a large body of testimonies and other concrete evidence exists for many of these cases, courts in Turkey often do not define them as crimes against humanity, and thus drop the cases when the statute of limitations expires.
Last month, the murder case of Kurdish journalist and writer Musa Anter, who was killed on September 22 in 1992, was dropped from the statute of limitations.
The case of Cemil Kırbayır, one of the symbols of Turkey’s enforced disappearances, has also been closed due to the statute of limitations on 28 December 2021.
The next hearing of the Vartinis massacre case will be held on 20 October. The lawyer of the victims, Kadir Karaçelik, told Gazete Karınca that by delaying the case until the statute of limits drew to a close, the policy of impunity had beem implemented step by step during the trial. He called on human rights defenders, non-governmental organisations, human rights lawyers and intellectuals to support the search for justice on 20 October.