ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey’s leading human rights campaigner–targeted by far rightists after accusations of links to Kurds–was shot and critically wounded by two gunmen in his office on Tuesday–rights officials said.
Akin Birdal–head of the Human Rights Association (IHD)–was shot several times in the chest and leg by the gunmen–who fled the scene.
A hospital spokeswoman told Reuters Birdal remained in critical condition after a four-and-a-half hour operation.
"He is under constant watch and we can’t say anything for sure until he comes around," she said.
The hospital’s head doctor said it would not be clear for some time whether he had suffered brain damage because of massive blood loss.
Birdal has been an outspoken critic of Turkey’s shaky human rights record and frequently accused the state of conducting a "dirty war" against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
"Two people shot him numerous times…The assailants fled the scene afterwards," an IHD spokeswoman told Reuters.
Local television carried pictures of Birdal lying on the floor–his white shirt and the floor soaked in blood.
Rights lawyer Aydin Erdogan blamed the shooting on a series of media reports suggesting Birdal had links to the PKK.
"Birdal was portrayed as a target before the whole world in recent days. It was an invitation to murder," he told reporters at the hospital.
A close friend and colleague said Birdal and his family had received telephone death threats in the last two months.
"This is a warning to the people of this country who oppose the official state policy on sensitive subjects such as the Kurdish question," Human Rights Foundation chairman Yavuz Onen told Reuters. "This attack was aimed at silencing dissidents."
The hospital itself had received bomb threats for treating Birdal–a leftist member of parliament told reporters at the scene.
No group had claimed responsibility for the attack–Interior Minister Murat Basesgioglu told reporters. "Fingerprints have been taken from the scene and a comprehensive investigation is under way," he said.
Police circulated computer-generated pictures of two men based on statemen’s by three witnesses.
Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz condemned the shooting.
"I am very saddened by this incident–I condemn it," Yilmaz told reporters.
The country’s leading businessmen group–TUSIAD–issued a statement denouncing the attack as an assault on democracy and efforts to improve human rights.
A group of Turkish intellectuals who went on trial for publishing banned speeches declined to defend themselves on Tuesday amid shock over the attack–Anatolian news agency said.
The 14 were accused of "aiding the PKK terror organization" by publishing speeches by two rights workers.
They each face up to seven years in jail.
Turkey has seen a wave of violence involving extreme rightist and leftist groups since militant clashes with police at a May Day rally in Istanbul.
Ultra-nationalist Grey Wolf militants have been blamed for the killing of a Kurdish political party member and a university student since then.
Veteran activist Birdal was recently accused in the media of having taken orders from PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. The accusations followed alleged confessions by guerrilla commander Semdin Sakik–captured by Turkish forces in northern Iraq.
Turkey’s human rights record has often come under fire from Western countries and was one of the factors cited by the European Union for excluding the country from a list on potential EU candidates last December.
Birdal faces at least 20 criminal cases on a variety of charges from aiding Kurdish rebels to provoking hatred. All are related to his criticism of Turkey’s human rights record and treatment of its Kurdish minority.
The 50-year-old activist–who helped set up the IHD in 1986–said last month he faced so many charges he could no longer be sure of their precise number. Turkey tolerates little dissent in its fight with the Kurds.
Police used force to break up an IHD-supported protest in Istanbul at the weekend by mothers of those missing in the 13-year conflict with Kurds.
This assassination attempt on Birdal–raises further questions about Turkey’s rights record. If official Ankara does not launch a full-blown investigation into the shooting–it could very well be held accountable for the shooting.