Colonel Kırca’s Secrets: OHAL and the Legacy of Turkey’s Dirty War
On the morning that he shot himself through the head, Col. Abdülkerim Kırca first read the newspaper. For over a decade the Colonel had been confined to a wheel chair—a bullet wound received during a firefight with separatist rebels in southeastern Turkey had left him unable to walk. Since his injury, he’d been living in Ankara with his wife Meriç, watching his grandchildren grow-up. In 2004 he was awarded the State Medal of Honor by then Turkish president Ahmet Necdet Sezer. On January 19, 2009 he was found dead in his home.
The following day, speaking to the media, Brig Gen Metin Gurak, Director of the Communications Department of the General Staff, criticized the media and announced that the military had requested for sanctions to be placed on certain papers. In recent days, Kırca’s name had appeared in the several papers. One source source accused him of personally executing three men in the southeastern town of Silopi and overseeing numerous executions in the surrounding region during the 1990s.
In 2005 Kırca and seven others had been charged with kidnapping and murdering members of HEP—a political party representing Turkey’s Kurdish minority. The case had been delayed due to jurisdictional issues, but events were making additional stalling difficult. One of the accused, Abdülkadir Aygan, had detailed the various crimes in which he had been involved and given very specific directions as to where bodies and evidence were located. Pressure was mounting for a trial to commence.
Nor were these the first accusations leveled at Kırca. A government investigation in the late 1990s had linked him to a hitman code-named Yeşil (“Green”). Yeşil, in turn, seemed to be linked to every violent act gracing the newspapers during the past decade. Kırca had borne all these accusations for several years, but confronted with that morning’s papers, he could take it no longer.
What exactly had officers such as Kırca been doing in the southeast?
II. OHAL in Turkey
Borders, both those politically dividing states and those socially separating groups, are intended to be defining. Borders establish who is inside and who is outside; what the bordered entity is and what it is not. And borders never entirely succeed. People and places are connected in far more ways than a border could ever hope to impede. Markets, ideas, cultures, and identities consistently fail to respect the limitations imposed on them by borders.
The modern Turkish state illustrates this impossibility all too well. The story of the Turkish state is (typically) the story of a concerted attempt to form a nation where none previously existed through the enforcing of borders—both political and social. Yet the process of creation has never gone smoothly and the story of the “Turkey” could as easily be one of diverse peoples actively resisting and negotiating with the state as it attempts to mold them.
One of these many resistances has come from Turkey’s Kurdish population. Under the Ottomans, Kurds were one of many diverse populations and the Empire’s attempts at incorporating them were about as successful as with any other minority group—which is to say general calm, punctuated by large-scale revolts, usually in response to modernizing drives by the state. With the disintegration and retrenchment of the Ottoman Empire within the current Turkish borders, however, Kurds became the largest remaining minority group. Attempts by the state leadership in the 1920s to create a Turkish-speaking, European-oriented state, of necessity, targeted many aspects of identity and culture that Kurds held dear. Major resistance erupted early in the Turkish Republic as early as 1925. This revolt—“The Sheik Said rebellion”—was suppressed in the short-term through brute force and, in the long-term, by maintaining a style of administration—rule-via-notables—that was reminiscent of the Ottoman era. “Notables,” of course, is just a polite term for large landlords, and the practical result of these policies was the perpetuation of a highly exploitive, quasi-feudal system in the Kurdish regions of the country.
The 1960s and 70s in Turkey saw a general radicalization of politics at either end of the spectrum. Marxism and leftist politics particularly appealed to many Kurds—especially students. The military coup of 1980 forcibly closed off public discussion of such issues. Coup leaders were especially concerned that Marxist thought, with its appeals to minority rights, undermined the unified nature of the state. The Constitution of 1982 emphasized the “indivisibility” or Turkey and affirmed that Turkish would remain the “national” language. By criminalizing moderate methods of contesting power, the military made more violent methods a more likely recourse. Within two years, the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) had launched an armed struggle against the Turkish state.
The PKK organized itself into military divisions largely coterminous with the provincial divisions in southern Turkey. Its attacks targeted state facilities and large landholders in the southeast. Those villages hesitant to give it their support were coerced into doing so. By 1987, realizing the seriousness and scope of the PKK challenge, the state passed legislation to create Olağanüstü Hal (OHAL)—a State of Emergency zone—covering eight southeastern provinces. Within the zone a high degree of censorship severely curtailed dissemination of information outside state channels. A special military governor was appointed to each province in partnership with a “public security commander.” These governors had the power to deploy army troops at will, bypassing civilian control. Over time, their powers expanded to include the authority to relocate village populations and to exile individuals from the region. Legal matters within the zone were placed under the jurisdiction of special State Security Courts.
The most lasting effect of the OHAL period—besides the tens of thousands killed —was that massive movement of populations. Rural areas became the focus of struggle between the PKK, the military and its local militias. By the early 1990s, the army had determined it could not control the countryside. Instead it would bring the countryside to the center by concentrating rural populations in new housing settlements on the outskirts of cities. These “toplu kondu” wrenched hundreds of thousands from their homes and removed them from the sphere of (potential) PKK control.
But OHAL should not be conceived solely as a zone of military-security control—that was but one aspect of it. In the region defined as OHAL the military and state pursued a number of strategies to undermine the PKK. While each might be logical enough, taken together, the result was chaos.
, the military sought to strengthen the traditional order of southeastern society. Alliances were formed with large landowners and clan leaders. Starting in 1985 villages under the control of these notables were militarized; locals were armed and paid around $100 a month by the state. In addition to regular army units and village militias (kurucu), numerous special organizations were introduced to the OHAL zone. These included intelligence services belonging to the state (MIT) and the jandarma (JITEM). To this alphabet stew were added Special Action Teams tied to the army and Special Teams tied to the jandarma.
The Special Team members were heavily recruited from ultra-nationalist political circles. During the 1970s, Turkey had experienced a growth in right wing organizations, represented in parliament by the National Action Party (MHP). These groups targeted leftist organizations throughout the country. The 1980 coup had suppressed rightist groups, but now the military saw the utility of funneling their energies into the southeast. Believing in a strong, unitary, ethnically “Turkish” state, ultra-nationalists were ill disposed to Kurdish demands and willing to take actions at which less committed, rank-and-file conscripts might hesitate.
The military also encouraged Islamist movements in the OHAL region. Throughout the country in the 1980s, Islamic attachments were encouraged as a check on left-wing sentiment and (one imagines) as source of social cohesion in a period marked by large-scale market-oriented economic reforms. In OHAL this was taken a step further with the promotion of “Turkish Hizbullah.” The Islamic militia was highly opposed to the PKK due the latter’s Marxist-secular nature. If Hizbullah carried out an attack on PKK or left-wing Kurdish groups, the military would often look the other way.
Yet another tactic the military and security services employed was the service of confessants. These were ex-PKK members who had renounced their membership and offered to aid the state in return for pardons. Sometimes these confessants were assigned to a particular unit, other times they were kept in prison, but released on furloughs to assist in particular assignments such as identifying former comrades. Colonel Kırca’s accuser, Abdülkadir Aygan, had been a confessant.)
All these stratagems contributed to the creation of an unstable environment in which lines of trust and authority were unclear—intentionally so: the military-state leaders established OHAL because they felt the PKK could not be defeated by strictly constitutional methods. By turning the region over to the military, greater force could be brought to bear. By establishing a bordered region within the state, they treated the PKK—and, really, Kurdish nationalism in general—as an infection to be quarantined. That addressing the Kurdish “problem” in such a manner was thought possible is ironic: if Turkey were a unified, politically integrated society, how could problems be localized? Cordoning off a region all-but concedes the essential falsity the claim. By defining the problem as regional and bordering it off, the military actually helped shape the Kurdish consciousness. From this perspective, borders succeeded in defining a space. However, an equally important angle from which to consider OHAL, and all that resulted from its creation, is as a fundamental failure of borders.
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Markets are among the institutions most resistant to borders. Demand for things—oil, drugs, labor, etc.—tends to be supplied at any cost. The zone administered by OHAL bordered Iran, Iraq, and Syria and has long been the region through which flows of goods from those countries pass. Much of the region’s economy and culture is shaped by its role in facilitating these movements. Long-standing distribution networks move products—both licit and illicit, legal and illegal—from Central Asia and Mesopotamia to coastal Turkey and Europe. By becoming directly involved in the management of these regions, the military (and the Turkish state) became enmeshed in these networks.
their long-standing nature, these networks are highly integrated into Turkish society. To travel up the Bosphorus straits and gaze at beautiful, luxurious houses, is to be reminded of how much money is flowing around the country—much of it tied to these networks. What happens out on the periphery of the state cannot be cordoned off from the center. The reverse is also true: a major difficulty the military encountered in attempting to crush the PKK was that money made in the center was being sent to the periphery to fund the Kurdish uprising. In order to disrupt this funding, it was necessary to take the fight outside the borders of OHAL. The methods employed outside, were the same as developed inside. In a very real sense, OHAL’s borders became coterminous with those of the Turkish state. This alternative military/security structure, co-existing with a legal/constitutional structure is what Turks mean when they speak of a “Deep State.”
One further element must be included in the “Deep State”: organized crime. Just as Armenians, Greeks, and Jews had been over-represented in certain sectors of the Ottoman Empire, Kurds were dominant in the narcotics trade. Kurdish organized crime heads were firmly tied into the economic fabric of the country, and closely allied to various political leaders. Suleyman Demirel, one of Turkey’s two main political leaders from 1960 to the mid-90s was close to Inci Baba, a major figure in organized crime. Türgüt Özal, the paramount Turkish leader of the 1980s, may not have been as closely associated, but his son was tied to various figures in the Turkish underworld.
Many of these Kurdish narco-traffickers were sympathetic to the PKK’s cause. Money earned from narcotics was funneled back to the southeast, often laundered through casinos. Beginning in the early 1990s, the military-intelligence community began to target these connections. Many of the leading Kurdish “godfathers” were assassinated. Control of their networks was assumed by rival, ethnically-Turkish crime figures associated with 1970s ultra-nationalist organizations.
murder of Ömer Lütfi Topal in 1996 was part of this pattern. Topal, the owner of a string of casinos in Turkey and Cyprus was suspected of involvement in various smuggling networks, and of supporting PKK efforts with his profits. The prime suspect in his murder was Abdüllah Çatli, a hitman associated with major organized crime figures and wanted on charges of drug running and of massacring leftists in Ankara during the late 1970s. The police were unable to capture Çatli before he was killed in a car crash late that year. In the same car as Çatli were his girlfriend; Huseyin Kocadağ, the head of the Istanbul Police Academy; and a member of parliament from the ruling True Path Party (DYP) named Sedat Bucak. Çatli, for his part, was at first misidentified because he was carrying officially-issued-ID identifying him as police officer “Mehmet Özbay.” 
The ensuring scandal—dubbed “Susurluk” after the town where the crash had occurred—led to resignations, investigations, and opened a greater space to publicly discuss what was occurring in OHAL. Kocadağ had been involved in establishing Special Team units. Çatli had been national vice-chairman of the Grey Wolves—the pre-eminent ultra-nationalist organization. Bucak, in addition to being a member of parliament, was also the head of a two thousand strong Kurdish clan allied with the government and integrated into the kurucu village militia system. All four had been staying in a hotel the previous several nights along with Mehmet Ağar, the Minister of the Interior. Even after this revelation forced Ağar to resign, photos surfaced of his successor, Meral Aksener, sitting next to Çatli at a wedding. Both interior ministers were close with the Prime Minister and, as a consequence, the President. The scandal implicated the entire political system and security apparatus. In the parliament inquiry, Colonel Kırca was among the many officers mentioned in association with “Green,” a shadowy figure accused of carrying out multiple murders in the southeast.
One group left relatively unscathed by the Susurluk scandal was the army. Yet, with 22,000 of its soldiers in the region, the army was inescapably bound up in all these networks as well. Although much of the worst violence in OHAL was attributed to the less-professional jandarma and its secretive intelligence unit, JITEM, the army had direct oversight, and, often, involvement. In late 2005, for example, a series of mysterious bombings targeting known PKK sympathizers terrorized the province of Hakkari. In November, in the town of Semdinli, three suspects were captured at the scene of a bombing—two non-commissioned officers and one confessant.
In responding to the events, Yaşar Büyükanıt, the Commander of the Turkish Land Forces, pointed out that he was acquainted with one of the suspects who had been “a valuable soldier” in Northern Iraq. This acknowledgement came as Büyükanıt was preparing to assume command of the entire armed forces. He was replacing a commander whom many officers had viewed by as overly accommodating of the Islamist-leaning government led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Büyükanıt, on the other hand, was seen as a hard-line nationalist. He had served as the commander of the 7th division stationed in Diyarbakir, the center of “Kurdistan,” and was thus at the forefront of the anti-PKK campaign in the 1990s. Many nationalists within the army and beyond anticipated that Büyükanıt would “put the AKP in its place.” His ability to do so, however, was immediately undermined by an indictment claiming that his statements had been intended to influence the judicial process.
Not that the judicial process required much influencing. Another development of the 1990s and 2000s was the discrediting of the State Security Courts overseeing the OHAL region and the judicial system in general. Security Courts tended to be staffed by hard-line nationalists and took an aggressive lead in prosecuting any acts of Kurdish nationalism. Various events—such as the president of the Ankara security court resigning in order to campaign for the leadership the National Action Party (MHP)—gave the courts the appearance of politicization and factionalism, rather than of speaking for some “transcendent” national voice. Similarly, in 2004, the chief justice of Turkey’s Court of appeals was found to have accepted a house as a gift from Alaatin Çakıcı, a major crime figure who had, during the 1970s, worked with Abdüllah Çatli against leftist groups. Clear links between ultra-nationalist crime figures and the judiciary further eroded the latter’s legitimacy.
Although OHAL as a set of operating laws came to an end in 2002, its legacy continued to be felt in Turkish politics and society. By revealing actions perpetrated by the armed forces during the OHAL period, the ruling party was able to discredit the military. Thus, the past decade has seen an increased number of news stories and investigations into the events of the 1980s and 90s. The case brought against Kırca and others being a prime example.
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In March 2004, Abdülkadir Aygan gave an interview to a Turkish newspaper detailing his time working as a confessant for the jandarma intellience service (JITEM) during the early 1990s. He described numerous murders he knew of or had been witness to. On one occasion he was present at the execution of a man named Murat Aslan. A suspected PKK member, Aslan had been snatched by JITEM officers, taken first to the Diyarbakir head-quarters, and subsequently to more removed offices in Silopi. From here he was driven out to a small village, shot, and incinerated. Upon learning of the interview’s publication, Aslan’s father Izzetin pressed the local prosecutor’s office to investigate. At the crime scene, charred remains belonging to Murat Aslan were discovered.
Kırca was alleged to have been the commander of the local JITEM unit at the time. Though JITEM’s existence continues to be disavowed by the military, it is commonly understood to have been at the forefront of state kidnapping, murder, and torture of suspected PKK members and sympathizers throughout OHAL. Kırca was in a position to order and supervise all of thee practices. Aygan claimed that Kırca participated on many occasions as well. Kırca’s superior was Colonel Cemal Temizöz, head of the jandarma base in Silopi. Aygan alleged that these men, along with the mayor of Çizre, the nearest major city, had overseen multiple executions as well as turning over suspected PKK militants to Hizbullah militias for torture.
Investigation of Aygan’s claims initially dragged. Moreover, the state stood by the accused: in 2005, the president awarded Kırca with a medal of honor and Temizöz continued to move up the administrative ladder. Yet momentum was shifting by late 2008. Lawyers representing the parents of Murat Aslan submitted their case to the European Court for Human Rights and the family remained in the news. On January 18, 2009, Izzetin Aslan was profiled by the newspaper Zaman in an article titled, “To the JITEM officer who murdered my son, the president gave a medal.” It was the following morning that Kırca committed suicide.
In the months that followed his death, investigations began in earnest. Local prosecutors conducted additional excavations along the road linking Silopi and Çizre. The former mayor was arrested along with Colonel Temizöz, and a trial for them and five others finally began in Diyarbakir. The major delay in the Silopi case had been the issue of jurisdiction. Military officers could not be prosecuted in civilian courts. By 2009, however, widespread public consciousness of military abuses both against Kurds in the OHAL region and against Turks of various ideological stripes during the 1980 coup, had given the AK Party the necessary votes to amend the constitution to allow military officers to be tried in civilian courts.
One source of pressure on officers such as Kırca and Temizöz was the ongoing Ergenekon investigation. Started in 2007 at the height of tension between the ruling party and the military, the investigation claimed a vast conspiracy to overthrow the government was in the works. This coup plot was being fomented both by retired officers (who maintained their influence via NGOs like the Ataturk Thought Institute) and currently serving ones. Various corroborating documents undermined the military’s denials and strengthened the AKP’s hand as it began arresting retired officers. As arrests spread to journalists and academics, it became clear that the Ergenekon investigation was as much a tool of silencing opposition as it was of dealing with any specific conspiracy. Papers allied to the government began linking every possible event in recent Turkish history to Ergenekon. It became clear that, by linking events like the Silopi executions to Ergenekon, victims could gain government support for their claims.
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The use of extra-constitutional violence; connections between the military, the intelligence services, organized crime, religious fundamentalists, the judiciary, and political elites; vast abuses of human rights: all of these practices preceded OHAL, and none is unique to Turkey. What the creation of OHAL did achieve was an intensification and normalization of these aspects of Turkish state and society. In establishing a space in which these practices were acceptable, the military-state leadership inadvertently exported such practices to the entire country.
Col. Kırca’s suicide is merely one of many events that illustrate the lingering presence of OHAL in Turkey. Whether or not he, himself, was guilty of the atrocities he stood accused of committing, cannot be answered here. Nonetheless, it is clear that Kırca served in a region where heinous deeds were done, questionable relationships were maintained, and many military officers found themselves committing acts in the name of state “security” that would haunt them years later in the comfort of their homes, far beyond the borders of OHAL.
The details discussed here may be particular to Turkey, but the themes are applicable farther a field. Whenever states attempt to cordon off a part of their territory—or of their people—and exempt it from everyday rules and norms, they run risk that the practices they develop there will spread through the entire society. This failure to establish effective borders between security targets and the general public can be seen in such disparate locals as Columbia, the United States, and Russia. If much of the alleged wrongdoing in southeast Turkey seems plausible, it is because such practices are all too common.
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 “Military: ‘Behave Yourselves,’” Turkish Daily News, 1/21/09
 Jacoby, p. 647.
 Button, p. 6; Jacoby, p. 649
 Jongerden, p. 40.
 Jandarma are provincial level security forces, under the oversight of the army.
 Barkey, pp. 147-9.
 Jacoby, p. 655.
 Technically, it was called the “Ilim” group after the Diyarbakir book shop whose reading circle served as a base (Jenkins, Politcal Islam, 186).
 Van Bruinessen, p. 22. Though, equally often, the PKK was the aggressor.
 As the military targeted village populations, it was also promoting an economic development scheme for the OHAL zone called the Southern Anatolia Project (GAP). The program would allow for the construction of numerous dams and irrigation projects. Improvement in agricultural output was strongly supported by landlords and other elites in the region, but it did little for populations that, without title to the land, would be forced to emigrate from newly flooded areas—assuming they had not already been relocated to urban centers as part of the military campaign (Robins, 664).
 Yavuz, “Five Stages,” p. 13.
 Such are the opportunities available to a population straddling multiple borders, directly in the path of drug flows, and bound together in close clan networks that insure transactional trust.
 Gunter, “Susurluk,” p. 124.
 Hakan Aslaneli and Zafer F. Yoruk, “Mafia or Bananna—or a Republic at all,” Turkish Daily News, The
 Bovenkerk, p. 585.
 The same fake name used by fellow ultra-nationalist Mehmet Ali Ağca to sneak out of the country in 1981 and attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II.
 “What happened to a gang,” Turkish Daily News, 11/30/97. It is worth noting that “Green,” although identified as a real person named “Mahmut Yildirim” is connected to so many events that (one suspects) he may be a convenient stand in for others.
 Barkey argues that the army has been wrongly (?) “tarnished by the behavior” of the jandarma (141), but Tezcür observes that the jandarma “is practically under the command of the General Staff” (308).
 Tezcür, the most detailed source regarding the Semdinli incident, translates this as “a good guy.” (320), but the only quote I find reads: “Kürtçe bilen, Kuzey Irak’ta çok değerli bir askerdir. Orada ben görev yaparken yanı başımdaydı. ”
 Jenkins, p. 33.
 Lefebvre, p. 110.
 Erhan Başyurt, “‘JITEM’ case as Important as Semdinli’s,” Today’s Zaman, 12/5/05.
 “Önce madalya, sonra dava,” Sabah, 4/3/05
 Neşe Düzel, “A Chilling Acount of JITEM’s murders,” Bianet.com, 10/29/09
 “Turkish colonel held in ‘death pits’ probe,” Agence France-Presse, 3/23/09.
 Melik Duvaklı, “Oğlumu öldüren JİTEM’ciye A. Necdet Sezer madalya verdi,” Zaman, 3/18/09
 “Seven suspects on trial in Turkey over summary Kurd killings,” Agence France Pressse, 9/11/09
 See Jenkins, Between Fact and Fantacy for a summary of the Ergenekon investigation.
 Ayşe Karabat, “Wells of death await discovery by Ergenekon investigation,” Today’s Zaman, 1/19/09.
 Columbia’s war against the FARC led to a powerful security apparatus; Russia’s war in Chechnya led to a resurgent intelligence community influence on the state; US anti-Communist investigations had, by the 1960s, created an FBI overflowing with files and political capital.