Sri Lanka war taking tragic civilian toll
21st of October 2006
Sri Lanka's war has begun to take on a gruesome dimension with news of innocent civilians being slaughtered becoming commonplace, something that is creating an atmosphere of distrust and making ordinary Sri Lankans nervous. Mafaz, a Sri Lankan aid organiser who would not give his surname, told Aljazeera.net: "We hear of people being killed all the time, and we don't know what to think. Of course we want peace, but to be honest we don't know where it will go from here".
Accusations abound on each side of the conflict, but who is responsible for the slaughter of ordinary people remains a grey area. The list of innocent civilians who have been killed in the conflict runs into hundreds, but numbers are hard to confirm.
The execution of 17 Sri Lankan aid workers, who were killed with one shot to the head while at work on August 4, exemplifies the confusion of Sri Lanka's 23-year war. The government has repeatedly blamed the Tamil Tiger separatists (LTTE) for the killing, while Nordic peacekeepers blame government forces.
A second autopsy is now being undertaken to unravel the execution of the 17 Tamil aid workers, who were employed by the French aid organisation Action Contre La Faim (ACF), but whether it will offer any conclusive proof remains to be seen.
Nine out of 15 bodies were exhumed in Trincomalee on October 18 and two bodies were exhumed earlier in the month. The autopsy is to be carried out by a Sri Lankan legal medical team with Australian experts present to observe. The arrival date of the Australians is still not known.
ACF had repeatedly called for an international inquiry to determine the deaths of the 17 Tamil workers, when the first autopsy proved to be inconclusive. But it took two months to get permission from the Sri Lankan government. Lucile Grosjean, a spokesperson for ACF, told Aljzeera.net: "We have been demanding an independent inquiry ever since".
Finally on October 4, the court granted permission for the second autopsy but the conditions were that a Sri Lankan medical team would carry it out, and that Australian experts could be brought in to observe. Grosjean said: "We have however been given the option of having Australian experts present at a second autopsy not unlike the first, they will be there in a supervisory role".
During the first examination the bullets were not found, and according to Sacha Kolar, a specialist registrar in forensic pathology based at the Medico-Legal Centre in Sheffield, UK, with Sri Lanka being a hot climate the bodies will have suffered from some serious decomposition.
This could reduce the clarity on drawing conclusions from forensics on how the killing was carried out, if no traces of ammunition can be found.
Kolar, told Aljazeera.net: "One of the most important factors to consider when looking at cases like this is the experience of the coroner carrying out the post-mortem. Also with Sri Lanka being a hot climate the bodies will have serious decomposition, which also brings to mind the question of identity. How confident are you of the identity of the bodies being exhumed".
The government has publicly been blamed by the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) for the killings. The peacekeeping mission issued a report on August 30, that concluded there were no other forces in Muttur, at that time, and blamed the army for trying to cover up the killing by restricting movement of the SLMM in the region.
Based on eye-witness accounts the SLMM report said: "The security forces of Sri Lanka are widely and consistently deemed to be responsible for the incident".
Finding concrete evidence in times of war is fraught with problems. But Sri Lankans are fed up with their government and do not understand how the country has come to this point after many years of relative calm.
A Sri Lankan taxi driver who lives in Qatar told Aljazeera.net on the condition of anonymity: "I don't understand what this government is doing. This government is very bad. The former prime minister was much better at handling this issue".
Only last month, 11 Muslim labourers were found hacked to pieces 9km south of Pottuvil in Ampara district. They were on their way to fix a sluice gate but never returned home. Ampara is a government-controlled area and a Sri Lankan military [Special Task Force (STF)] camp is near the location of where the brutal killing took place.
Residents of the town reportedly said that they believed it was the STF who were acting in the area in co-operation with the Karuna faction - a spin off of the Tamil Tiger rebels, who have openly been supported by the STF. Mafaz said: "It's no secret that there have been tensions between the local Muslims and the STF". The government blamed the LTTE for the killing.
The Karuna faction has been operating freely in government controlled areas since the conflict erupted four months ago.
Thorfinnur Omarsson, a spokesperson for the SLMM told Aljazeera.net: "In the Batticoloa area, which is partly-government controlled, the Karuna faction have been operating quite freely".
Peace talks are now on the table with a date set for October 28 and 29, when the government and the LTTE will travel to Geneva to hopefully put an end to the conflict. Analysts say, with the recent upsurge in violence it is difficult to see how anything positive will come out of it. On October 16, at least 103 people - many of them navy sailors - were killed in a bus bomb, which left hundreds injured.
It is likely that the SLMM will play a role in the peace talks, but with the escalating violence, what type of role has yet to be defined.
Omarsson told Aljazeera.net: "One might think there is no use for peace talks under the present situation, but quite the opposite is true. There is a need for peace talks to begin, there is no other alternative than to go ahead with the talks".
What ever the outcome of the talks and/or the autopsy, it is clear that Sri Lankans have been hurt by the conflict and it has set up a deep distrust for this government. The families of the dead will deserve to be compensated for the loss of their loved ones, how the government will deal with it is yet to be seen.
Sri Lanka's aid workers continue to work in an environment that is becoming more and more dangerous day by day. The tragedy of Sri Lanka is that not only is the safety of aid workers important to help the thousands of people displaced by the conflict, but also to continue the ongoing reconstruction work in the tsunami affected areas.
While the execution of 17 innocent aid workers remains unsolved it has sent a message to others. Omarsson said: "It seems the one who carried out this attack did it to send a warning to others. International NGOs across the country have been threatened by anonymous groups. Especially local NGO workers who are working for international bodies".
Mafaz told Aljazeera.net: "I don't feel so safe anymore. I am planning to leave Sri Lanka at the end of this month. What can I do?"
Written for aljazeera.net
Two steps forward, one step back
2nd of October 2006
Turkey's road to membership of the EU has been losing momentum ever since it entered accession talks last year, with the latest blow coming via a new report that heavily criticises the country's record on human rights and freedom of speech.
The initial findings by members of the European Parliament was delivered in a report on September 27, and showed that Turkey is behind on its promised reforms. The all important progress report from the European Commission is to be delivered on November 8.
On Friday, Olli Rehn, the EU enlargement commissioner, told Finnish public television YLE: "Speeding up reforms is the best way to avoid a collision between the EU and Turkey, and cooling or halting the negotiations process". One area that has been in the spotlight throughout September is freedom of speech, an integral part of Turkey's move towards full democratisation.
The acquittal of a prominent Turkish writer, Elif Shafak, who was prosecuted under Article 301 of the new penal code was seen as a huge step forward for freedom of speech in Turkey. Shafak celebrated the verdict on September 21 from hospital after giving birth just one week earlier to her first child. She was absent from the opening hearing.
Shafak also expressed concern over what she called a "culture of lynching" emerging against those voicing "dissident" views in Turkey.
The irony of Article 301 is that it was brought in as part of the new penal code on June 1, 2005, in the drive for reforms to please Europe, but has instead been the cause of much controversy. The article states that under the penal code, any person who publicly denigrates Turkishness, the Republic or the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and three years.
It also states that a person who publicly denigrates the government of the Republic of Turkey, the judicial institutions of the State, the military or security organisations shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and two years. In cases where denigration of Turkishness is committed by a Turkish citizen in another country, the punishment shall be increased by one third. Expressions of thought intended to criticise shall not constitute a crime.
'Revised or abolished'
Ali Yurtugul, a member of the European Parliament and adviser on migration, asylum and discrimination and on issues linked to Turkey, told Aljazeera.net that Article 301 will be a focal point of discussions between Ankara and Olli Rehn, who is scheduled to visit the Turkish capital next week. Yurtugul said: "Rehn will travel to Ankara next week and he will focus on Article 301 with regard to freedom of speech in Turkey. It is clear that all cases show that 301 is a problem in Turkey.
"It is used by people who are dangerous to Turkey's move towards a democratic future. It must simply be revised or abolished." Referring to Article 301, Shafak told the Turkish TV station, NTV, after a scuffle outside the court house between nationalist lawyers and her supporters: "I am concerned about an idea that has recently developed in Turkey, the idea that 'those who do not think like us are co-operating with the enemy'."
Yurtugul also said that after the acquittal of Shafak, it was clear that the government was fully aware of the threat of such an article and that he believed that it would be abolished by the end of this year.
In a related development, the opening hearing of 56 Kurdish mayors got under way in the south eastern city of Diyarbakir on Wednesday. They are charged with supporting a terrorist organisation after writing a letter to the Danish prime minister earlier this year to request that Roj TV, a Kurdish station based in Denmark, be allowed to remain on air.
Ankara has demanded the channel be closed down because of content that supports the armed separatist movement, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The PKK has been responsible for a spate of bombings this year, and it is believed that at least 30,000 people have been killed in the long war between Turkey and the separatists. Yurtugul said: "It is a separate issue from Article 301. It was ridiculous of the mayors to write such a letter to the Danish prime minister. Legally if you put that in the context of Europe, it was the wrong way to execute such a demand. Whilst suggesting that the programming of Roj TV is quite clearly in support of the PKK, he suggests the government could have been more subtle in its approach. "They could have taken a different approach by holding a press conference with the Turkish media that would have been based on opinion instead of writing such a letter."
Yusuf Kanli, editor of the Turkish Daily News, an English language daily, accepts criticisms in the European Parliament report as part of the EU process and also believes that Turks need to start looking at themselves and take responsibility for an organic democratic process instead of blaming others.
"We should stop this habit of torturing ourselves. We cannot be a society composed of masochists," he says. "Let's face it, despite all the reforms, we have a long way to go before becoming a democratic society. Accepting this fact will itself be a big step forward."
One of the other issues that came up against hard criticism in the report was the Cyprus issue.
The EU says that Turkey must open up ports on the northern part of the island to Greek ships. The island was invaded and partitioned in 1974 by Turkish troops.
The Armenian genocide must also be recognised according to the report.
Yurtugul told Aljazeera.net that Article 301 would be a focus of Rehn's visit, because both Cyprus and the Armenian issue have strong lobbies in Europe but Article 301 does not.
It is possible that last-minute reforms could help Turkey's case, but EU officials will wait to hand down a verdict upon receiving the EC progress report.
Written for aljazeera.net
Turkey's nationalist dilemma
1st of March 2007
The arrest of a Kurdish politician for alleged criticism of Ankara's position towards Kurds in Iraq has heightened fears that Kurdish migrants on Turkey's Mediterranean coast could face a campaign of harassment and intimidation.
On Friday, police detained Hilmi Aydogdu, leader of the Democratic Society Party's branch in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, and later charged him with inciting racial enmity and hatred.
Aydogdu's statements came a week after a group of nationalists in Mersin, Turkey's third biggest port, launched a campaign "to kick out Kurdish migrants from the city", as reported by the Turkish daily Radikal on February 15.
Up to 40 per cent of Mersin's population is Kurdish.
Turkey's changing face
Saban Dayanan, a spokesperson for the Turkish Human Rights Association (IHD), believes the campaign launched in Mersin is part of a wider issue and appears to demonstrate the changing face of Turkey.
"The report in Radikal did not reflect the reality of Mersin," he said. "The city is reacting to the increase in its migrant population. Turkey is changing because of the growing migrant population in inner cities."
Dayanan says that the influx of migrants and their rapid population growth has put a strain on local economies and demands for housing, which has brought crime to inner cities, and created much of the recent tension.
Mersin's free trade zone opened in 1986 attracting relatives of settled migrants to the city. In addition, thousands of Kurds fled their villages in the 1980s amid security concerns as the Turkish military was waging a war against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) at that time.
Cemil, a Turkish Kurd and Mersin resident, who did not want to give his surname, said his family moved to the city in the 1960s because life was difficult in the village.
"My parents moved to find an opportunity because they needed to make a living," he said.
"These reports are worrying because we have never had a problem in Mersin like this before."
Cultural and economic pressures
Mersin's population has increased 100 per cent in the past 20 years from approximately 70,000 in the 1960s to 700,000 today, according to Atahan Cukurova, secretary-general of the chamber of shipping in Mersin.
"We are not happy with the cultural and economic changes in Mersin. But we want to improve the level of education and skills in migrant families. There are plans to build new schools," he says.
Professor Hasan Unal of the department of international relations at Bilkent University in Anakara agrees.
"Mersin has been exposed to a kind of aggressive migration, mostly from the surrounding areas," he says.
An economic gateway to the predominantly Kurdish region, it is the natural choice for rural Kurds wanting to make it in the big city.
Unal argues that tensions have risen because a number of PKK cells were born out of the unemployed in the city: "The legal structures exist for organisations to form and it is a very strategic place [oil transit from Iraq]. The police are powerless in such situations."
Dayanan also believes that Kurds are partly responsible for the rise in tensions.
"Kurds by tradition were farmers and a society that doesn't like to educate themselves, much of their culture is passed on verbally, so they have never formed any opposition," Dayanan says.
Nationalistic fervour rises
Turkish nationalists are emotional about the Kurdish issue. They blame many of the country's economic problems on the expenditure of the military to fight the PKK. Many have lost children in the war.
With the presidential elections coming up in May and parliamentary elections expected in November, Ankara will have to tread carefully on all issues.
Dayanan said: "If this government is not careful, nationalism could be Turkey's biggest problem in the future. This not an innocent national movement, it is a very violent one that rejects other social groups."
Violence against voices of dissent was taken to a new level when Hrant Dink, an Armenian newspaper editor, was assassinated in January.
Questions have been raised in the Turkish media over the motivations behind Dink's killing after a leaked CCTV video was broadcast by local TGRT television showing 17-year-old Ogun Samast, the suspected killer, posing like a hero with members of the security forces while holding a Turkish flag.
The "deep state"
The rise in nationalism, which has developed because of disillusionment over EU acceptance and Ankara's concessions to the US over Iraq, is now being used by the "deep state" (a systematic structure) to halt democratisation, experts believe.
According to the Turkish media, it is believed that the "deep state" uses this rhetoric with unemployed youth to target dissident voices in Turkey.
Samast confessed to killing Dink because, he said: "I read on the internet that [Dink] said 'I am from Turkey but Turkish blood is dirty' and I decided to kill him ... I do not regret this."
Dink, who was known for his outspoken ways on the killing of millions of Armenians, was proud of his Turkish citizenship and Armenian heritage, and argued that his words were used to improve the difficult relations between the two countries.
Dink believed that there were darker forces at work in Turkey. He wrote the week before he was killed that "2007 would be the most difficult year yet” and that he "didn't know what injustices I will see".
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, acknowledged the existence of the "deep state" in a statement on January 27: "Such a formation has always existed. It did not originate in the Turkish republic period but has its roots in the Ottoman empire. We have to minimise, even eradicate, this formation."
The deep state is believed to be made up of elements from the military, security and judicial establishments which function within a nationalist ideology.
The military is deeply entrenched in Turkey's identity. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a soldier who rose through the ranks to fight off the invading forces during the first world war, established today's modern republic in 1923 and was its first president.
Ataturk is hailed as a military hero in Turkey. His legacy is handed down through the education system. Elementary school students learn in Ataturk's words that their first duty "is forever to preserve and to defend the Turkish independence and the Turkish republic".
Erdogan's statement is not the first from a prime minister to have acknowledged the existence of the deep state in Turkey. Bulent Ecevit, former Turkish prime minister, was the first leader to talk about the "counter guerilla" in 1978.
Ecevit explained that the "counter guerilla" is a military establishment outside the chain of command of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), an extra-state organisation within the state.
Dayanan believes that such structures do exist in Turkey and are very strong.
"These forces like the status quo and are triggering social movements to prevent change. Under the umbrella of nationalism this is a type of SS organisation."
But Unal, disagrees with the theory of a deep state being active in Turkey.
Unal told Al Jazeera: "We have state institutions, but we don't have state co-ordination like in the UK for example, it is fragmented in Turkey. The press has been irresponsible on these issues."
Written for aljazeera.net
Army blamed for Sri Lanka aid killings
30th of August 2006
The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission has said that the military murdered 17 local aid workers from the international group Action Contre La Faim this month. The statement said: "SLMM [the monitoring mission] is, with the obtained findings, convinced that there cannot be any other armed groups than the security forces who could actually have been behind the act."
In response to the report, Brigadere Prasad Samarasinghe, a Sri Lankan military spokesman, told Aljazeera that an investigation was being carried out by the ministry of defence and the inspector general. "I can not comment on an ongoing investigation," Samarasinghe said.
The victims, all but one of them ethnic Tamils, were found with gunshot wounds, lying face down in the compound of their office clearly identified by their Action Contre La Faim (ACF) T-shirts.
The SLMM concluded that there were no other forces in Muttur at that time, and blamed the army for trying to cover up the killing by restricting movement of the SLMM in the region. "The views have not proved contradictory and the security forces of Sri Lanka are widely and consistently deemed to be responsible for the incident," the report said.
The SLMM also ruled that a fragmentation mine attack on a civilian bus in June that killed almost 70 people was a breach of the ceasefire by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), while blaming the government for a string of similar attacks in rebel areas since April.
Ahead of the September 1 deadline issued by the Tigers for all European monitors to leave the island, after the EU declared the LTTE a terrorist organisation, the SLMM said: "The mission was continuing to prepare for the withdrawal of Danish, Finnish and Swedish monitors".
"Eight monitors have left during this week, and another 22 are scheduled to leave in the coming days, which leaves the mission with only 20 Icelandic and Norwegian monitors." Norway is not a member of the EU.
The report also said that the governments of Iceland and Norway have decided to increase the number of monitors to 30 as soon as possible.
The army launched its heaviest artillery barrage for days towards rebel territory south of Jaffna early on Wednesday, but some schools in the town opened for the first time since the siege began two-and-a-half weeks ago.
"I can hear the shells and I'm a little worried," said civil servant Suresh Kumar as he delivered his son to school. "If things are bad tomorrow I won't let him come. Their life is more important than these exams." A Tamil journalist who was abducted ealier this week has been released unharmed.
The military was continuing its offensive on the Jaffna peninsula to secure Trincomalee. A military spokesman said: "The troops are moving towards Sampur [on the southern lip of Trincomalle harbour]. The main thing of this operation is to capture it to secure Trincomalee harbour and nearby civilian areas."
Officials said Mahinda Rajapakse, the president of Sri Lanka, and Mangala Samaraweera, the foreign minister, had flown to London to meet the British prime minister, but had no details. At least 65,000 people have died in the war and up to 200,000 people have been internally displaced.
Written for aljazeera.net