WASHINGTON (Reuters)–The United States on Tuesday condemned what it said was an apparent assassination attempt against a leading Turkish human rights leader.
State Department spokesman James Rubin said that Turkish Human Rights Association President Akin Birdal was shot repeatedly in the chest by two unknown gunmen at the association offices in Ankara.
"The US strongly condemns the apparent assassination attempt against Akin Birdal–one of the foremost advocates of human rights in Turkey," the spokesman’said.
He noted that Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz also condemned the attack. Rubin urged Turkish authorities to move swiftly to bring the attackers to justice.
The spokesman praised Birdal as having "dedicated himself to improving Turkey’s human rights situation."
He said the United States strongly supports the "vital role" of non-governmental organizations in democratic society and "calls upon Turkish authorities to create an atmosphere where these groups can flourish."
"By persistently attempting to discredit the Turkish Human Rights Association (HRA)–the Turkish authorities created the climate for today’s shooting of Akin Birdal–President of the HRA," Amnesty International said.
"The Turkish authorities have consistently failed to investigate or condemn earlier fatal attacks on officials of the Association," the organization said.
"In fact–successive Turkish governmen’s have remained mute when such attacks took place–while the Foreign Ministry endeavored to take every opportunity to undermine the HRA–and Akin Birdal in particular. It appears that this may have been official policy."
It appears that this unprovoked attack is the result of the Turkish authorities’ irresponsible handling of alleged confessions by Semdin Sakik–a former military commander of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) who recently defected to the Kurdish Democratic Party/Iraq (KDP/Iraq) of Masoud Barzani–and was subsequently abducted by the Turkish security forces in Northern Iraq and brought back across the border. The Turkish press then published confessions alleged to have been made by Semdin Sakik–in which numerous prominent personalities critical of the government were implicated as having actively supported the PKK. Akin Birdal was one of the targets of such accusations.
More than 10 officials of the HRA have been killed since 1991. In most cases–the assailants were unidentified–although the attacks took place at the same time as intense police harassment–coinciding with a succession of prosecutions of the organization for its legitimate activities. Muhsie Melik–founder of the Sanlanfa branch of the HRA–was able to identify his attackers as police officers before he died of his wounds on 2 June 1994.
"It appears that such murders of HRA members were not properly investigated–and in no cases was the HRA satisfied that the true perpetrators had been arrested – indeed–it appeared that perpetrators were being protected," Amnesty International said.
The text of what was apparently a secret Interior Ministry circular in January 1997 referred to human rights groups as being used by the PKK–and recommended that local Governors–Gendarmerie General Command and Police Headquarters should "take measures to eliminate the impression of credibility" of people who "incite the public." The uncorroborated allegations attributed to Semdin Sakik were given enormous publicity – in direct breach of the normal practice of public prosecutors who have the right to keep preliminary investigation secret.
Meanwhile Birdal–regained consciousness on Wednesday after he was critically wounded in a gun attack blamed by his colleagues on ultra-rightist gangs.
"He is taking nutrition and was able to give an account of what happened to policemen for a short time today," hospital spokeswoman Elcin Kavasoglu told Reuters.
The Human Rights Association (IHD) chief was shot several times in the chest and leg by two gunmen in his central Ankara office on Tuesday.
"We are seeing improvement in the areas where surgery took place. Complications could still arise but as far as danger to his life is concerned the position is getting better," Anatolian news agency quoted the hospital’s head doctor as saying.
The IHD said at a news conference it believed rightist gangs linked to the state were behind the shooting.
"The attack was a planned and professionally executed assassination attempt," IHD deputy leader Eren Keskin said. "The existence of gangs within the state is illustrated in the most ugly way by this event."
Several thousand protesters marched through central Ankara to Birdal’s hospital. They dispersed after a rights activist conveyed a message from Birdal saying he was feeling better.
A further 1,500 people demonstrated in a main shopping street in Istanbul to protest against the attack.
The demonstrators chanted "Murderous state" and "Shoulder to shoulder against fascism" during a march led by mothers of those missing in a 13-year conflict between the state and Kurds.
Over the weekend–police used force to break up an IHD-supported protest by the mothers in the same area.
Turkish newspapers said responsibility had been claimed by a group called the Turkey Vengeance Brigade–an amorphous far rightist organization blamed for political killings in the late 1970s.
Turkish authorities denied such a claim had been made.
Police released pictures of the assailants based on witnesses’ descriptions. Investigators had found no matches to fingerprints taken at the scene of the shooting–Anatolian said.
Birdal has been an outspoken critic of Turkey’s shaky human rights record and frequently accused the state of conducting a "dirty war" against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
A cousin of a leading right-wing politician from Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz’s party was found shot dead in his car on Wednesday–Anatolian reported.
It said Yasar Okuyan’s cousin–a businessman–was ambushed after being followed by two cars in Yalova–south of Istanbul. It was not clear who was behind the attack.
Earlier this month–a Kurdish political party member and a university student were killed in attacks blamed on ultra-nationalist Grey Wolf militants.
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 of potential EU candidates last December.