A long-awaited trial opened Wednesday of three police officers for the 2015 killing of a prominent rights lawyer in Diyarbakir, Turkey’s biggest Kurdish-majority city.
Tahir Elci, who campaigned for Kurdish rights, was shot in the head in broad daylight on November 28, 2015, during armed clashes between Kurdish militants and police.
He was head of Diyarbakir’s bar association at the time.
The three police officers are accused of “causing death by foreseeable negligence” and face between two to six years in prison if convicted.
A fourth individual described as a Kurdish militant is being tried in absentia on the same charge, as well as over the killing of two police officers and “destroying the country’s unity and integrity”.
The militant, who had been on the same street as Elci when the lawyer was killed, faces life in jail if found guilty.
The police officers were due to take part in the trial, which began under heavy security in Diyarbakir, via videoconference.
Officials removed journalists including AFP‘s correspondent from the courtroom, citing concerns over coronavirus, but one journalist was to be allowed back in to follow the hearing.
Dozens of lawyers and representatives of human rights groups also attended the trial.
Elci’s death came after a 2013 ceasefire collapsed between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is blacklisted as a terrorist group by Ankara and its Western allies.
Two PKK militants shot two police officers dead in a street near to where Elci died just minutes after he called for peace in the restive southeast.
“Many in the human rights movement in Turkey and internationally will be focused on whether the conduct of the trial is designed to reveal the full circumstances of Elci’s killing or instead to try to exonerate the police at all cost,” said Tom Porteous, Human Rights Watch deputy program director.
HRW criticized the “extreme delays” in the case and the “huge obstacles to securing an effective investigation”, noting that the prosecutor investigating the death was replaced several times and authorities failed to collect evidence at the site of the shooting.
Investigators from the London-based research agency Forensic Architecture last year published an in-depth report into the shooting indicating that security forces could have killed Elci.
“It will be very important for the Diyarbakir court to take full note of the study’s findings and carefully examine whether the prosecutor’s charges against the police are commensurate with the gravity of the crime,” Porteous said in a statement.