GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations’ top human rights official urged Turkey on Monday to investigate the shooting of unarmed people 10 days ago in its largely Kurdish southeast and said any members of the security forces committing rights abuses should be prosecuted.
Southeastern Turkey has seen its worst violence in two decades since a 2-1/2-year ceasefire with militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) collapsed last July, reviving a conflict in which 40,000 people have been killed since 1984.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra‘ad Al Hussein was referring to an incident on Jan. 20, in which 10 people were wounded in the town of Cizre when their group, including two opposition politicians, came under fire while rescuing people hurt in earlier clashes.
“I am urging the Turkish authorities to respect the fundamental rights of civilians in its security operations and to promptly investigate the alleged shooting of a group of unarmed people in the southeastern town of Cizre after shocking video footage emerged last week,” Zeid told a news briefing.
The footage showed the group, including a man and a woman holding white flags, ferrying bodies across a street, watched from an armored vehicle. Gunfire breaks out and they duck for cover. The camera falls to the ground and a pool of blood forms.
“They are apparently cut down in a hail of gunfire,” Zeid said in a statement, expressing concern that the cameraman, who was wounded, might be arrested.
“Filming an atrocity is not a crime, but shooting unarmed civilians most certainly is,” he said.
A senior government official said the incident would be investigated but denied civilians were being targeted.
“Turkey began an operation there aimed solely at ending terror ... Of course this incident will be looked into. But the government has not allowed civilian deaths and will not do so,” the official said.
The Turkish army says more than 600 militants have been killed since operations began in Cizre in December, and denies killing large numbers of civilians.
Government officials say the PKK, which the United States and European Union class as a terrorist group, has caused civilian deaths by digging trenches and erecting barricades in urban centers.
In the latest clashes, the army said five members of the security forces were killed in PKK attacks in the Sur district of the regional capital Diyarbakir on Monday. Zeid said Turkish authorities had told him that 205 members of the security forces had been killed between July 20 and Dec. 28.
He said the authorities were entitled to take security measures but must observe human rights law. If “state operatives” violated rights, they must be prosecuted, he said.
Zeid said the video footage raised “major question marks about what exactly has been going on” in Cizre and other parts of the southeast, where 24-hour curfews have been imposed in several towns and journalists have little access.
He also voiced concern at the prosecution of Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Cumhuriyet, which is critical of the president and government, and its Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gul.
He called for the release of all journalists, academics and human rights activists “detained or prosecuted simply for recording or criticizing the actions of the state”.
Additional reporting by Seyhmus Cakan in Diyarbakir; Writing by Stephanie Nebehay and Nick Tattersall; Editing by Kevin Liffey