Gruesome Paris murders loom large over Turkish politics

Kurds protest in Paris.jpg

A woman who helped found the Kurdish PKK rebel movement and two other women were found shot dead in Paris in the night of 9-10 January after execution-style killings that cast a shadow over peace moves between Turkey and the PKK guerrillas.

The bodies of Sakine Cans?z, a founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the early 1980s, and her two fellow activists were found in the early hours of Thursday (10 January) at an institute in the French capital that has close links to the PKK.

They appeared to have been shot in the head, a French police source said. Kurdish media said one woman was also shot in the abdomen. Workers had broken in to the room at the Information Centre of Kurdistan after seeing blood stains on a door.

Cans?z was a prominent PKK figure, initially as a fighter and later in charge of the group's civil affairs in Europe, according to a Kurdish lawyer who knew her. A 1995 photograph shows her standing next to militant leader Abdullah Öcalan, wearing olive battle fatigues and clutching an assault rifle.

Öcalan is now in a Turkish jail and the killings came shortly after Turkey announced it had resumed peace negotiations with him – something likely to anger hardliners within the PKK (see background).

The Turkish government and PKK have agreed a framework for a peace plan, according to Turkish media reports, in talks which would have been unthinkable in Turkey only a few years ago. Öcalan is widely reviled by Turks who hold him responsible for a conflict that burns at the heart of the nation.

French investigators gave no immediate indication of who might be behind the murders. The PKK has seen intermittent internal feuding during an armed campaign in the mountainous Turkish southeast that has killed some 40,000 people since 1984.

Turkish nationalist militants have in the past also been accused of killing Kurdish activists, who want regional autonomy. But such incidents have been confined to Turkey.

"The choice of Cans?z as a target is because she was symbolic of the Kurdish movement," said Franck Cecen, a Kurdish lawyer in Paris who met Cans?z at least half a dozen times and described her as exceptionally well-spoken and well-educated.

"She had been one of its founding members, she had spent years in prison for her convictions, and she had become a historical figure," he told Reuters, adding that he found it hard to believe fellow Kurds would have taken her life.

"It is difficult to imagine that this was done by a Kurdish cell," he said. "Everyone is talking about a Turkish role."

Erdo?an: 'This may be an internal reckoning'

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an said it was too early to apportion blame: "This may be an internal reckoning," he said. "We are engaged in a struggle against terrorism. We want to make progress, but there are people who don't want this. This could be a provocative undertaking by these people."

The killings came shortly after Erdo?an's government announced it had resumed talks with Öcalan, who has been confined on a prison island near Istanbul since 1999. Talks to end the conflict would almost certainly raise tensions within the Kurdish movement over demands and terms of any ceasefire.

Among a crowd that gathered behind police lines at the Paris Kurdish institute were onlookers chanting slogans and waving yellow flags bearing Öcalan's likeness. France is home tens of thousands of Kurdish immigrants, of who some are PKK activists.

"Rest assured that French authorities are determined to get to the bottom of these unbearable acts," French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said at the scene, adding the killings were "surely an execution". His predecessor, Claude Guéant, said Turkey's engagement in the peace process led him to conclude it was unlikely that Ankara's agents were behind the killings.

Any Turkish government contacts with the PKK, deemed a terrorist group by Ankara, Washington and the European Union, are highly controversial in the Turkish political establishment.

Valls identified one of the victims as the head of the Information Centre and said homicide and anti-terrorism units had been assigned to investigate the murders. A police source confirmed that all held Turkish citizenship.

The two victims other than Cans?z were named as Fidan Dogan, 28, and Leyla Soylemez, 25.

"This is a political crime, there is no doubt about it," Remzi Kartal, a leader of the Kurdistan National Congress, an umbrella group of Kurdish organisations in Europe, told Reuters.

"Öcalan and the Turkish government have started a peace process, they want to engage in dialogue, but there are parties that are against resolving the Kurdish question and want to sabotage the peace process," he said.

The Firat news agency, which is close to the PKK, said another of the three victims was the Paris representative of the Brussels-based Kurdistan National Congress. It said the murder weapon was believed to have been fitted with a silencer.

"A couple of colleagues saw blood stains at the door. When they broke the door open and entered they saw the three women had been executed," French Kurdish Associations Federation Chairman Mehmet Ulker was reported as saying by Firat.

Several members of the Kurdish community in Paris said that Cans?z, who was in her 50s, was an emblematic figure who had been imprisoned in Turkey before obtaining asylum in France.

"She was in charge of communicating information on events in Turkey, she would denounce arbitrary arrests, unsolved murders," said a member of the Arts and Culture Academy of Kurdistan who asked not to be identified.

Turkish political analyst Emre Uslu, who previously worked in Turkey's counter-terrorism police unit, said in a blog that the killing of Cans?z could point to a split within the PKK.

He said Cans?z was a leading member of a faction within the PKK that had in the past opposed Öcalan's moves towards peace.

"For Turkey to sit down with the PKK before its internal problems are solved is considerably problematic," Uslu said.

Turkey's pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy (BDP) party, two of whose members were allowed to pay a rare visit last week to Öcalan, condemned the killings: "We call on our people to hold protest meetings wherever they are to condemn this massacre and stand up for the Kurdish people's martyrs," its leaders said.

The Kurds are 'a nation without a country'. According to the CIA 'factbook', 18% of Turkey's population of 77 million people are Kurdish. Similarly, 15-20% of Iraq's population of 30 million are Kurds, and so are 7% of Iran's 66 million population. Up to two million Kurds are estimated to live in Syria. 

After the US-led war that brought down the regime of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Kurds enjoy a high degree of autonomy, parliamentary democracy and the highest living standards in the country. 'Iraqi Kurdistan' is even allowed to have independent foreign relations. 

Turkey also fears that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could encourage Kurds to feed militancy in Turkey.

Turkey's Kurdish problem, which has fuelled separatist conflict in the mainly Kurdish southeast, has long been an obstacle to Ankara's EU membership ambitions. 

According to the Turkish press, the Kurdish conflict in Turkey has cost the lives of about 40,000 people since 1984, resulted in more than 17,000 unsolved murders, wasted billions of dollars in military expenditure and countless billions more in missed opportunities. 

The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which launched a campaign in 1984 for Kurdish self-rule in the southeast, is believed to number 4,000 fighters. It has been weakened recently by Turkish military operations against bases in northern Iraq. 

PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured in 1998 and was sentenced to death, before the punishment was converted into life imprisonment. 

Subscribe to our newsletters