ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A former Turkish colonel and seven other members of the security forces were cleared on Thursday of involvement in the deaths of 21 Kurdish people two decades ago, in a court case European officials and activists had said was a test of rights reforms.
Judges found there was insufficient evidence to convict Cemal Temizoz, 57, who served as a gendarmes commander in the town of Cizre during fighting near the Syrian border between 1993 and 1995, media and rights campaigners in court said.
About 15 relatives of the victims had traveled the 1,000 km (650 miles) from Cizre to the court in the northwest town of Eskisehir for the final hearing. They fell silent after the verdict was read, said Harun Padir, a witness in the case who told the court he had been detained along with his father and uncle on June 6, 1994.
Padir, 16 at the time, testified that he was freed but his father and uncle were never heard from. “There is no justice for me because I’m a Kurd,” said afterwards. Temizoz denied the charges.
The period covered by the case was among the bloodiest in the war that has ravaged Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast since the autonomy-seeking Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) took up arms in 1984. More than 40,000 people, mainly Kurds, have been killed.
The conflict flared anew in July after a two-year ceasefire collapsed. Authorities placed Cizre under a round-the-clock curfew for more than a week in September when, Kurdish lawmakers have said, another 20 civilians were killed during clashes between the PKK and security forces.
Temizoz was accused of leading a unit in a counter-terrorism organization that rights groups say tortured and killed suspected PKK members.
“I fought against terrorism and organized crime,” Temizoz told the court, according to CNN Turk. “I did the impossible in Cizre: I made it a peaceful town. I request my acquittal.”
Hundreds of murders in Turkey’s southeast remain unsolved. The PKK is also accused of widespread abuses.
“If these people didn’t do it, then the families have a right to know who did,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch. “Turkey has a history of impunity for the state’s forces ... Denying justice to its citizens means the wounds cannot heal.”
Temizoz’s trial began in 2009 and was described in 2012 by the Council of Europe as an “opportunity to shed light on a period of systematic human rights abuses in southeast Turkey.”
But the case proved difficult to prosecute, with key witnesses recanting testimony.
Four other ex-officers have been cleared of similar charges this year.
High-profile trials dubbed Ergenekon and Sledgehammer had sought to hold the military accountable for alleged crimes and were part of President Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to end the influence of once-dominant generals.
Those proceedings have culminated in acquittals or retrials. Former president and general Kenan Evren, convicted for leading a 1980 coup that ushered in torture, arrests and deaths, was appealing his life sentence when he died in May, aged 97.
Editing by Andrew Heavens