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Three Kurdish women murdered in Paris: a crystal clear mystery

Fréderike Geerdink photo
Fréderike GeerdinkParis, France
Three Kurdish women murdered in Paris: a crystal clear mystery
On 9 January 2013 three Kurdish women were killed in Paris, among them Sakine Cansiz, one of the founders of the Kurdish armed group the PKK. Every year Kurds gather in Paris to commemorate the women and demand authorities shed light on the executions. But a lot has come to light already.

(This story was originally published on on 3 February 2016.)

Tijda Cansiz (23) gestures to a family member behind her. Could he please take over the carrying of the huge plastic banner from her? No, it’s okay, you hold it, he gestures back. But Tijda isn’t asking out of politeness. She no longer wants to be one of the people walking in the front of the procession of at least ten thousand protestors, taking over the streets of Paris. She’s tired. ‘All these cameras’’, she says a little later with tears in her eyes, when the man took over her place at the front.

Tijda Cansiz is the niece of Sakine Cansiz. In many parts of the world an unknown name, but for many Kurds she is a legend. At the end of the 1970’s Sakine Cansiz, code name Sara, was one of the founders of the armed Kurdish movement the PKK. In the 1980’s she was locked up for years in Diyarbakir prison, notorious for the extreme torture prisoners were subjected to. After that, she spent years as a guerrilla in the mountains of Kurdistan and eventually ended up in Europe, in Paris to be precise, where she continued the struggle for Kurdish rights without the use of weapons. On 9 January 2013 she was killed in the office of the Kurdistan Information Centre, located on the broad Rue la Fayette in France’s capital. Not only Sakine Cansiz was murdered, but also two fellow activists, Fidan Dogan and Leyla Saylemez.

Tijda Cansiz in Paris, 9 January 2016. Her mother, Sakine’s sister, in the right lower corner of the photo.   

Ever since Kurds from all over Europe have gathered every year in Paris to demand openness about the murders. The man who is suspected of pulling the trigger, Ömer Güney, a Turk who has lived in both France and Germany since his youth, is locked up in a French prison, but the dark game behind the triple murder is still shrouded in mist. ‘Murderer Erdogan! Accomplice Europe!’ the crowds chant. Tijda, who lives in Rotterdam with her family and is studying social work, says: ‘On the one hand, I would like to mourn my aunt in silence. The slogans are so harsh. On the other hand, I do feel supported by all the people here and by their anger.’  

How important Sakine Cansiz (born 1958), Fidan Dogan (1982, France representative of the Brussels based Kurdish National Congress) and Leyla Saylemez (1989, activist) were for the Kurdish movement, became clear at the farewell gathering held on 17 January 2013 in Diyarbakir, after the coffins with the bodies of the women had arrived in that city: tens of thousands flocked onto a centrally located rally ground, and the streets around the ground were also crammed with people. The three coffins, covered with PKK flags, were at the front, and the stage behind it was packed with all the standard-bearers of the Kurdish political movement who cheered the contributions of the women. Then mayor of Diyarbakir and now MP for the HDP, Osman Baydemir, proclaimed: ‘At one time, women in this region didn’t even have a place at the dinner table. Now they are at the forefront of the struggle.’

(Photo: Farewell gathering for the three murdered women in Diyarbakir, 17 January 2013.)   

The next day Sakine Cansiz was burried in her home town Dersim, officially called Tunceli. Tijda and other family members from the Netherlands were there, as were Sakine’s parents, who now live in Berlin. At the time Tijda recalled – Beacon was there at the time – that only three weeks before that she had celebrated New Years Eve with her aunt. Now she says: ‘It was my first time in Diyarbakir. It has always been a dream of mine to go there, just as I had this dream of seeing Dersim in the snow. It was snowing during her funeral. I hadn’t been in Paris either, until a day after the murders. Now, these cities have for ever lost their magic.’

She is studying, inspired by her famous aunt. ‘When I saw my aunt, we would talk about my education, but also about the Kurdish struggle, and about how we shouldn’t get alienated from it. I am studying social work now with the aim of using that one day in Diyarbakir. I hope to contribute to the women’s movement there.’

Extremely unlikely

Primary suspect in the murders, Ömer Güney, was arrested by French police on 21 January 2013. He still had traces of blood on his shoes, and on his coat were DNA traces of the victims. Güney had been lending a hand to the Kurdish movement in Paris since 2011, mainly as a translator and driver. His interest in the Kurdish struggle had, as appeared later from police investigations, started rather abruptly and only recently: before 2011 he lived in Bavaria, south Germany, for eight years, and according to the German weekly Der Spiegel he sympathised with the Turkish nationalist ideology at the time. Friends of Güney from those days assess his alleged PKK membership as ‘extremely unlikely’. It added to the idea that emerged in the Kurdish movement right after the murders: the Turkish secret service MIT was behind it.

Güney’s past in Germany and his Turkish nationalist sympathies form the tip of the veil covering the plot behind the triple murder. But there is more, much more. Antoine Comte, lawyer for the families of the three women, says he doesn’t even know where to start when Beaconreader asks him about the evidence that Ömer Güney didn’t act alone but on orders of the Turkish secret service MIT. ‘In the days before the murders he called phone numbers in Turkey dozens of times. On YouTube a recording was published of Güney with his commissioners, in which details of the murders are talked about. Güney denies it’s his voice, but acquaintances of his have confirmed that it’s him, as have experts in this field.’
Turkey refuses to cooperate with the investigation, which makes it impossible to discover whose numbers Güney had been calling. For Antoine Comte this only strengthens his conviction that MIT is behind it. ‘The French judiciary has asked for information via official channels but Turkey doesn’t respond. So they don’t want to uncover anything. France has no jurisdiction in Turkey so they can’t do anything but ask for information.’

Comte also points to the many visits Güney (photo) paid to Turkey in the weeks before the murders, and to a visit he got from a friend from Germany once he was in a French prison cell. Antoine Comte: ‘The conversation the two had was recorded, as usual, and Güney asks his friend to contact his mother and he gives him a piece of paper. The friend was interrogated later, and he declared that ‘mother’ was a code word for ‘MIT’, and that the paper was an escape plan. This information is all in his files.’

Investigation of Güney’s phone revealed that he had taken pictures of the personal information of some three hundred members of Kurdish cultural foundations just two days before the murders, and that he had sent these pictures and then deleted them. ‘It was an order from my superiors’, he told his interrogators, without going into the details.
And then there’s the document, the document with the word ‘secret’ on it and the name ‘Sara Sakine Cansiz’. German Der Spiegel wrote that it originates from 2012, was allegedly coming from MIT and was the order to murder Cansiz. An infiltrator, named Legionnaire in the document, would have to ‘render Cansiz ineffective’. Both German and French experts who investigated the documents, which were posted on the internet, are convinced that the documents are genuine.

What was crystal clear to lawyer Comte and to the Kurdish community very soon after the triple murders, was confirmed in July 2015 by the indictment of the public prosecutor, from which French daily Le Monde quoted. Even the initials of the MIT official Güney allegedly had a hotline to, K.T., were mentioned in it, and it was stated that the Turkish authorities didn’t respond to a request for more information about this man. The indictment reads: ‘There are legions of indications that give cause to thinking that the MIT was involved with the inciting of the murders and carrying them out. It was discovered that Ömer Güney was involved in spying activities and that he was secretly in touch with a couple of spies in Turkey.’

Turkish papers reported the indictment too. The papers close to the government triumphantly headlined that the prosecutor stated there was ‘no evidence’ of MIT involvement. That the evidence wasn’t rock solid only because of a lack of cooperation from the Turkish authorities, was not mentioned prominently, or vaguely or not at all.

The individual in Pennsylvania

As icing on the cake, (then) Prime Minister Erdogan himself admitted that the Turkish secret service had ordered the murder. He spoke at a gathering of his party the AKP a year after the murders, on 9 January 2014. It was some three weeks after a corruption scandal came to light, in which AKP ministers were implicated and even Erdogan and his two sons were under fire. Erdogan managed to quickly halt the investigation by replacing hundreds of police officers, among them heads of departments for financial and organised crime, and to fire or replace crucial prosecutors. He designated the investigation into malpractices as a ‘judicial coup’. And this ‘judicial coup’ was, he claimed, the idea of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic preacher who has been living in Pennsylviania, US, for years. Gülen was once Erdogan’s ally, but already before the corruption scandal the relationship started to wobble, partly due to alleged differences of opinion about the peace process with the Kurds. The ‘judicial coup’ was the death blow to the alliance.

Who else than Fethullah Gülen was the ideal candidate to blame for the murder of Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Dogan and Leyla Saylemez? And so he proclaimed: ‘They organized the executions in Paris, they wanted to end the resolution process. Who? The individual in Pennsylvania and his people here.’ Of course without handing over evidence, and without giving the French judicial authorities insights into those he held responsible.

No longer tenable

By the ‘resolution process’ Erdogan meant the peace process between the PKK and the Turkish state. Halfway through December 2012, so about three weeks before the murders in Paris, Erdogan admitted that there were talks going on with PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, and the country was buzzing with hope for peace. During Newroz, Kurdish New Year on 21 March 2013, a declaration by Öcalan would be read out to a crowd. Speculations were everywhere. Would he renounce the armed struggle for good? Would the PKK withdraw from Turkish soil? What exactly had been agreed upon between the state and the armed group? In the midst of such an atmosphere, the death of the three women came as a shock. And because of this timing, the Kurdish movement immediately suspected the Turkish secret service: there were, they thought, people within the state who were fiercely against the peace process, and who wanted to bring it to an end before it had even started by murdering the legendary fighter and PKK co-founder Cansiz. Which, by the way, failed: Öcalan’s speech, read to a crowd of hundreds of thousands in Diyarbakir in both Turkish and Kurdish, did happen, and the peace process started. It continued till summer last year.

As quick as the Kurdish movement was in pointing a finger at MIT, just as quick were the Turkish authorities to point at the PKK itself as perpetrator. It was supposedly the settlement of an account within the organisation. An old feud between Cansiz and a commander in the mountains, or a disagreement about the peace process that was about to start. Settling accounts was, in the 1980s and 1990s, not uncommon inside the PKK, but it’s been years since the organisation was caught doing it. With the arrest of Güney this theory, which was initially also investigated by the French police, was no longer tenable.

The commemoration march in Paris, 9 January 2016, with HDP co-chair Figen Yüksekdag in the front row.   

But how about the accusations of the mourners in Paris, who state with their slogans that the French government is an accomplice? Several Kurds in the march say they find it a shock that such a murder could happen in Paris, and that Kurds are not even safe from the Turkish secret service on the streets of Europe. Like 43 year old Zelal, originally from Mardin in southeast Turkey but now residing in Germany. She shouts along with the slogans and says: ‘The murders of Sakine, Fidan and Leyla are not an isolated case. The massacre is one of many on the conscience of the Turkish state, here in Paris but mostly in Turkey. We call them ‘unsolved murders’ but everybody knows who the killers are. The whole truth can only come out when the Kurdish issue is solved, when there is real peace.’

Fatma Uyar, Pakize Nayir and Seve Demir, the three women murdered in Silopi in January 2016   

In the demonstration in Paris people carry purple flags with the portraits of Cansiz, Dogan and Saylemez, but also of three other women. They – Seve Demir, Fatma Uyar and Pakize Nayır – were killed in Silopi on 5 January 2016. Just as the Paris victims these women were active in the Kurdish political movement, and the protestors define the Silopi murders too as executions by the state. There are no independent investigations into the murders and the civilian deaths occurring now in the southeast of Turkey. Autopsies are being done on the dead bodies, after that the local governor comes up with some declaration and that’s it. It’s against precisely this impunity, this lack of any independent investigation, that the Kurds in Paris are campaigning.  

Lawyer Antoine Comte however does see a positive exception in the case of the Paris murders: the French judiciary has been digging and has not been afraid to point to the MIT as the instigator. Comte says: ‘France has quite a history when it comes to political murders in which foreign intelligence agencies are implicated. The disappearance of the Moroccan politician Ben Barka in Paris in 1965 for example, an investigation that is still ongoing and still not cleared up. Also Algerian dissidents have been murdered in Paris. Usually, the French justice system complies with the wishes of the French government and doesn’t draw conclusions in public about who the instigators of these political murders are. But in this case, they explicitly point to MIT, and that’s new and important. It’s quite something, of course, that the secret service of a friendly state comes to Paris to carry out a triple murder.’
Therefore, Comte says, it’s not the work of the French police and prosecutors that should be considered scandalous. ‘The scandal’, he says, suddenly sharp, ‘is that the French government has not even once said anything about this. The families of the three women were not invited for a condolence visit, their pain wasn’t recognised, the French government didn’t pressure Turkey in any way to hand over evidence. They maintain relations with the Turkish secret service and that’s why they didn’t want to mingle. Realpolitik in the worst sense of the word.’

He defines this ‘cowardice’ attitude of France, as he calls it, and the historical trend of it, as the reason why the MIT has been so careless and why the evidence is so overwhelming, without any MIT official being prosecuted. ‘This is of course exactly the question that needs to be asked!’ he proclaims when the journalist asks if it’s not unlikely that the MIT would work so sloppily, implicating themselves so clearly. ‘They knew they’d get away with it!’
Maybe Ömer Güney also thought he’d get away with it? That he would live the rest of his life as a free man in Turkey? Used by MIT and now possibly locked up for life in a French prison. Antoine Comte thinks for a second and then says: ‘Maybe. I don’t give a damn’.

Creaking wooden floor

At the demonstration in Paris the rumour spreads that the trial against Ömer Güney will start this May, but Comte denies that. ‘Probably this fall. He will be accused of triple murder in a terrorist plot. Life sentence.’ Tijda Cansiz says she’d like to attend the trial. Her French is close to non-existent, but well, just to be there where the murderer of her aunt, her ‘heroine’, is tried. Then again, she isn’t sure: ‘It’s an important court case of course, but I don’t think I want to be in the same room as him.’

She is emotional the whole day and seems a bit lost in the commemoration march, finding comfort with her mother, Sakine’s younger sister, who has the same tight, almost frizzy hair. We pass the place where the murders happened, but later, she doesn’t want to go back there to take a look. Too hard. When asked about how she heard the news three years ago of the death of her aunt, she reacts with big eyes, shocked. She hardly has a voice left when she says: ‘I don’t want to talk about that’.

There are flowers the next day, there on the sidewalk at 147 Rue La Fayette (photo). At 145 an eastern grocery, at 149 an electronics shop. The wreaths of several Kurdish organisations, also of the PKK, are placed among dozens of candles, long gone out of course. Two purple flags with the portraits of the women wave in the wind. Their first names are scratched into the heavy green front door that gives entry to the building. Sneaking in is possible when one of residents of the building arrives. The Kurdistan Information Centre was on the first floor, reached by a tiny elevator or via a narrow staircase. A small hall with creaking wooden floor, four front doors. It’s the third one. Red police tape, a seal, a yellow note with the order that the apartment is not accessable. Ne pas ouvrir.

The murder of Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Dogan and Leyla Saylemez is clarified, but then again, it’s not. The blood of the women is on MIT’s hands, but on whose hands exactly remains unclear. And that’s not very likely to change, because in the end the peace process didn’t survive. Ever since last summer, violence has started again, the list of political murders is growing, Erdogan is determined to once and for all destroy the group which Sakine Cansiz helped to nurture. The Turkish army won’t succeed, the mourning protestors in the streets of Paris shout: ‘Kurdistan will be the grave of fascism!’

UPDATE 18 December 2016:On 17 December 2016, sources within the French judiciary stated that prime suspect Ömer Güney (34) died of a brain tumor in a French hospital. The trial against him was  to take place between 23 January and 24 February 2017. There are no other suspects: those ordering and planning the murder remain unknown.

This story was published in Dutch weekly magazine Groene Amsterdammer in the edition of 21 January 2016. Read it here in Dutch (costs a little).

#Sakine Cansiz, #PKK, #Paris murders, #MIT, #Turkey, #Paris