15 February 2021
The Death of Captive Soldiers and Officers: We Are Deeply Saddened
According to the statement of the Defense Minister on 13 February 2021, 13 civilians were found dead in a shelter cave during an extensive air and ground military operation launched into the Gare region in Northern Iraq that was initiated on 10 February 2021 early in the morning. It is understood from statements by the Chief of Staff that one of the objectives of this military operation was to rescue these persons who had been captured before. The deeply saddening fact, however, is that these persons lost their lives and a massacre was committed. We extend our condolences to the families of those who lost their lives. We would also like to state that we are utterly saddened by the fact that we could not save these persons. We do condemn those who are responsible for their death and underline that the perpetrators should be held accountable before the courts.
The PKK/HPG restarted holding civilians and security personnel captive after the unfortunate resurge of armed conflict on 24 July 2015 in Turkey. In the past all the captives had been received and able to reunite with their families as a result of human rights organizations’ efforts. 20 customs officers held captive in July-August 2015 had been received from the PKK/HPG on 8 September 2015 in the Iraqi Federal Kurdistan Region by İHD and taken to Turkey to reunite with their families.
Yet soldiers, police and intelligence officers, who had been held captive by the PKK/HPG when the roads were blocked and controlled, were not released although 6 years have passed. According to applications lodged before the İHD by their families:
- Police officer Vedat Kaya was taken captive on 24 July 2015 on the Diyarbakır-Bingöl highway,
- Police officer Sedat Yabalak was taken captive on 28 July 2015 on the Diyarbakır-Bingöl highway,
- Specialist sergeant Hüseyin Sarı and privates Sedat Sorgun and Süleyman Sungur were taken captive on 13 August 2015 on the on the Diyarbakır-Lice highway,
- Petty officer Semih Özbey was taken captive on 18 September 2015 on the Dersim-Erzincan highway,
- Privates Müslüm Altuntaş and Adil Kavaklı were taken captive on 2 October 2015 on the Dersim-Pülümür highway,
- Specialist sergeants Sedat Vardar and Ferdi Polat were taken captive on 12 December 2015 in Şırnak city center,
- Specialist sergeants Ümit Gıcır and Mevlüt Kahveci were taken captive on 21 September 2016 in Hakkari.
The uncertainty about the fates and whereabouts of Sedat Vardar and Ferdi Polat resumed, while the authorities informed Ferdi Polat’s family two years after his capture of the fact that he had lost his life shortly after he was taken captive. The fate and whereabouts of Sedat Vardar still remain unknown.
İHD’s central office and its branches along with other human rights organizations have issued numerous statements with the families and loved ones of those held captive. Our statements can be found at our association’s official website and those of various media outlets.
Other than press conferences held with the families, meetings were also held before the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (GNAT) with the group deputy chairpersons of political parties and various state officials. Further, the families themselves have met with ministers, prime minister and the president to solve the problem. İHD’s and other human rights organizations’ requests to meet with the president, prime minister and the interior minister received neither a positive nor a negative response.
Video messages from soldiers and police officers, namely Vedat Kaya, Sedat Yabalak, Hüseyin Sarı, Semih Özbay, Müslim Altuntaş and Adil Kavaklı, were first released on 4 January 2016.
A second video message was released on 8 July 2016 upon İHD’s call but this time only messages by Süleyman Sungur, Müslim Altuntaş and Adil Kavaklı were released.
İHD and the families met with representatives of political parties with a group in the GNAT on 23 December 2016. İHD stated in these meetings that the association could take initiative and receive these individuals. Only the meeting with HDP was held before the press among these meetings. This initiative failed because of the indifference of the political power.
A joint statement and call were issued with the families of the soldiers and police officers at İHD’s Diyarbakır Branch on 22 June 2017.
A delegation from İHD and the families met with CHP Chairperson Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu on 29 September 2017.
Families, the co-chairperson of İHD, and CHP’s Deputy Chairperson Veli Ağbaba issued a statement and a call on the issue at the GNAT on 2 October 2017.
Video messages from 8 captured soldiers and police officers were released on 7 June 2018.
The families and İHD’s co-chairperson issued a call for the release of these persons once again at İHD’s Diyarbakır Branch on 14 June 2018. These initiatives, however, failed once again because of the indifference of political parties during the general elections process.
Letters written by 9 of the captured soldiers and police officers were received by our association in April 2019, which were then communicated to their families, and a call for their release was issued with the families once again on 29 May 2019 at İHD’s central office.
Some of the families participated in sit-ins held before HDP’s provincial offices in Diyarbakır beginning with 2020 and issued statements for the release of their sons.
Some initiatives were taken following the latest call but these initiatives were not able to meet the desired goal due to harsh security policies (such as the state does not respond to terrorist organizations) and the ongoing military operations resulting in the failure of all our attempts to secure the release of persons held in captivity.
We would particularly like to indicate that the indifference of the pro-government media continued which in turn erected an obstacle before constituting a strong public opinion regarding this matter.
According to the press statement released by Malatya Governor’s Office on 14 February 2021 and the ensuing identification of the persons, 10 persons among the soldiers and police officers, whose names are mentioned above, and two persons were identified while the identification of another person was still pending.
Parties involved in an armed conflict cannot attack persons hors de combat. It is clear that the 13 people, who lost their lives during the incident in question, were hors de combat, i.e. they were not parties in the armed conflict. Such acts not only do violate humanitarian law but also qualify as war crimes. Therefore, the question whether persons hors de combat were directly targeted or not bears critical significance in such cases. Moreover, human rights law, which is only binding for states, lays certain responsibilities on states within the scope of military operations they will launch. Under human rights law states are obliged to avoid operations that would endanger hors de combat and to take necessary measures to guarantee the right to life of these persons.
These crucial points cannot be unveiled without an effective investigation. Both humanitarian and human rights law require an effective investigation to be conducted by independent and impartial organs following the violation in order to reveal the perpetrators while respecting the public’s right to truth, particularly that of the families and loved ones of the victims, provided that it does not disrupt the investigation. İHD considers it a must to remind all that such an obligation is not only for the families and loved ones of the deceased persons but is also a compulsory path to be followed in order to prevent the repetition of similar rights violations.
The PKK is responsible for the lives of persons it holds captive under humanitarian law. Its responsibility in the current case is clear. We invite it to release all if it still is holding persons captive.
We call on state/government officials. It is clear that the Office of the Chief of Staff will also be held responsible for the possible consequences of its rather risky military operation into a place where the captive persons were held. The government should take action and launch administrative investigation into the matter. The competent office of the chief public prosecutor’s work should be facilitated for the effective investigation into the incident within the scope of which the captured persons lost their lives. All available information and documents pertaining to the military operation should be shared with the competent chief public prosecutor’s office. The Forensic Medicine Institute, too, should identify the cause of death and time of death for the deceased within the scope of its autopsy works and other procedures in line with international standards and should make these available for monitoring. İHD would like to underline that in order for justice to be served it is imperative that all truth should be revealed and an effective investigation should be launched by impartial and independent organs in such gross violations of the right to life.
Having regard to the significance of the incident, the GNAT should establish an inquiry commission and shed light into the incident.
It should be remembered that all these gross violations of the right to life are the consequences of the ongoing armed conflict and, unfortunately, they will not come to an end unless the Kurdish issue is resolved through democratic means. We, as defenders of peace, will always keep on defending peace against war.
Human Rights Association