Activists Killed in Paris Murders Jeopardize Turkish-Kurdish Peace Talks

In recent weeks, a solution to Turkey's long-running conflict with Kurdish separatists seemed near. But after three Kurdish activists were found murdered in Paris on Thursday, peace talks could now be in jeopardy.
Von Jürgen Gottschlich
A portait of PKK activist Sakine Cansiz outside the Kurdish cultural center in Paris where she and two other Kurdish women were found dead on Thursday.

A portait of PKK activist Sakine Cansiz outside the Kurdish cultural center in Paris where she and two other Kurdish women were found dead on Thursday.


Journalist Saruhan Oluç sounds resigned. "That's how it is here," he says. "A positive step has barely been made before another setback takes place."

For years, Oluç has been working for a peaceful solution to Turkey's conflict with Kurdish separatists. Now he is following the shocking news from Paris. Like many Turkish media commentators, he believes that the murder of three Kurdish activists in the French capital, discovered on Thursday, was an attack on the fresh dialogue that had just begun between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the main Kurdish rebel group classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey  and most Western states.

French police don't have any strong leads, but circumstances indicate that professional killers may have been at work at the Kurdish Information Center on Rue La Fayette in the 10th Arrondissement, where the killings took place. The three women there were shot in the head and the killer is believed to have used a silencer on the gun used. Even French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said the slayings were "without doubt an execution."

Kurds in France are calling the murders a "contract execution," as one demonstrator gathered outside the scene of the crime put it. The protestors are visibly shocked. Two women dressed in black weep silently. But they are also outraged and disappointed with the French government, which under the leadership of Socialist President François Hollande has failed to change how the country deals with the conflict, or the fact that it continues to view the PKK as a terrorist organization.

Who Is Responsible?

The question of who was behind the killings remains unanswered. "Anything is possible," says journalist Oluc. "Both opponents of the peace process within the PKK, or Turkish right-wing extremists linked to the security apparatus who oppose an agreement with the Kurds, are potential perpetrators." Regardless, the bloody crime is likely to unnerve those working towards a peace deal.

Avni Özgürel, a journalist for the left-wing newspaper Radikal, believes that the real target is imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. One of the three victims on Thursday was Sakine Cansiz, a close companion of Öcalan's. She was present when the PKK was founded in the late 1970s and spent years in the Diyarbakir Prison, notorious for the systematic torture that took place there, and later went on to become an important PKK representative in Europe.

When Öcalan left Syria under massive Turkish pressure in the late 1990s, unsuccessfully seeking asylum in Europe, Cansiz was always by his side until his last arrest in Kenya in 1999, PKK experts say. Whoever killed her may be sending a message to Öcalan and other PKK leaders that further talks with the Turkish government would be life-threatening. While the Turkish government and some of the media have suggested that the perpetrators might be PKK hardliners who want to prevent peace, most Kurds are convinced the murders were committed by the Turkish "deep state." That is, right-wing extremists who want to prevent compromises with the Kurdish minority in Turkey at all costs.

A Basic Agreement

All sides agree on one point, though. The murders show just how arduous the peace negotiations will be -- and this after talks between the two sides had seemed more promising than they had in a long while. On Dec. 28, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed during a television interview that after a long hiatus, his government had renewed talks with PKK leader Öcalan, who is currently in solitary confinement on the island of Imrali, in the Sea of Marmara. Shortly thereafter, one of Erdogan's advisors disclosed that the head of Turkey's MIT intelligence agency, Hakan Fidan, had spent Dec. 23 and 24 on the island to meet with the prisoner.

The New Year brought permission for two Kurdish politicians to meet with Öcalan as well. It was the first time since his arrest and imprisonment that he was given such a privilege, and its very occurrence is evidence that the man seen as a terrorist leader by the majority of the Turkish public is now ready to take an active role in finding a peaceful solution to decades of bloody conflict.

Three days ago, Radikal reported that a basic agreement had already been reached between Ankara and Öcalan. According to the paper, this includes a ceasefire and retreat into northern Iraq by the PKK in the near future. In return, Ankara would release several Kurdish prisoners and pass further legal amendments to grant de facto amnesty to all PKK militants without a record of homicide. Furthermore, current efforts to develop a new Turkish constitution would include redefining citizenship to include Kurds and other non-Turkish minorities. The Kurdish language would also be legalized in schools and public administration.

Uncertain Future for Negotiations

Although Erdogan stressed that neither general amnesty nor house arrest were under consideration for Öcalan, reaction to the news was remarkable . Suddenly Erdogan's Vice-Prime Minister Bülent Arinç thought to emphasize that Öcalan had been a good Muslim in his youth. Meanwhile, commentators marvelled at how the Kurdish leader has managed to lead a dogged movement for 30 years amid complicated Middle Eastern politics. Among Kurds he is a cult figure, MIT head Fidan said approvingly.

When even opposition leader Kemal Kiliçdaroglu offered his support in talks with the PKK, everything seemed to be moving with sensational speed toward a peace deal -- until the murders were discovered on Thursday morning.

"I believe it will continue nevertheless," says journalist Oluç, adding that the talks are a last chance for both Erdogan and Öcalan to end the bloodshed.

Skeptics, including Radio France's foreign policy pundit Bernard Guetta, are less positive. The militant separatists will rise up again despite compromises from Ankara, he predicts. "The dream of a unified secular Kurdish state" is simply too great.

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