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Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party seeks justice for murdered party volunteer

The Peoples’ Democratic Party charges that the prosecutors are reluctant to fully investigate the links of the health worker who attacked the party’s office in June.
Women hold a banner with the picture of Deniz Poyraz who was killed at Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) Izmir headquarters, June 19, 2021.

IZMIR, Turkey — On June 17 at 10:50 a.m., a bulky young man with tattoos and cut-off gloves, wearing a leather vest and carrying a heavy bag, walked into the Izmir office of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) and fired four shots into a young female party volunteer. Then he took a photo of her as she lay on the floor dying and posted it on his WhatsApp status with the word “Body 1.” 

Onur Gencer, a health worker who served with Turkish special forces in Syria’s Manbij in January-February 2020, told the police that he had intended to kill more people but was “disappointed to find [just Deniz Poyraz] there.” What he initially planned to do, he told the police in his 27-page testimony, was to kill Kurdish political figures such as HDP’s imprisoned former co-chair Selahattin Demirtas, HDP’s current co-chair Pervin Buldan and veteran Kurdish politician Leyla Zana. Realizing that this would be too difficult, he set out to attack the party office in Izmir. Then he loitered around the building till he learned the local members’ daily schedule and purchased at least one gun to carry out the attack. “I acted alone,” he said in his initial statement to the police.

HDP lawyers and party members disagree. Holding a press conference in Izmir ahead of the trial scheduled for Dec. 29, four HDP members said that Gencer’s links to security and intelligence officers he worked with should have been carefully investigated but were not. They also called on representatives of human rights, bar associations and political parties to come to the court in solidarity to observe the trial. Various bar associations and women’s groups said that they would send representatives to the trial.

According to HDP members and party lawyers, Gencer is the “fall guy” whose links, if carefully deciphered, may reveal a complicated web of relations involving a private security company close to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, police officers, and members of the security and intelligence apparatus, including those with whom Gencer served in Syria. 

“This was not merely the lone wolf act of a mentally disturbed young man. This was a political attack planned in cold blood to kill six members of the party, including the local chair who escaped it because he went out to buy a pack of cigarettes,” Turkan Aslan Agac, lawyer and legal and human rights committee member of the HDP, told Al-Monitor. “We want to see a thorough probe that would reveal the others behind the crime, those who encouraged and made use of this shooter, those who provided help and logistics and put money in his pocket. It is those whom we are after.” 

Flicking through a large folder in her office ahead of the trial, Agac displayed to Al-Monitor the photos of Gencer as he fired shots in Syria’s Manjib, practiced shooting at a pavilion in Izmir, and one photo of the accused after the arrest where he is not seen in an ordinary questioning room but in a place with leather chairs and a coffee machine. Her notes included the contacts Gencer had among police and security officials with whom he worked in Manjib and with whom he kept in touch, often discussing the best guns to use. “They need to be questioned,” she said. “Most of them have not.” 

Agac described Gencer as “a young man whose anger was carefully directed toward minorities and other groups portrayed as enemies of the state.” 

“Remember Ogun Samast (the 17-year-old who shot Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007)?” Murat Cepni, the HDP deputy for Izmir, asked Al-Monitor. “It was initially seen as the act of an ultranationalist, only to reveal years later the role of security and intelligence officials in planning and aiding the murder. We want a careful investigation into this murder, but what we see instead is concealing evidence such as failing to reveal the phone records for the 27 calls Gencer made to someone or some people in Izmir police headquarters before the attack.” 

Cepni also points the finger at SADAT, a private security company run by a figure close to Erdogan. Mobster-turned-YouTuber Sedat Peker accused the company of sending trucks of arms to Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian offshoot of al-Qaeda, in 2015, though both the CEO of the company and Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkish foreign minister at the time, denied the claims. Shortly after Poyraz's murder, Sedat Peker tweeted that “worse things were to come” and urged Kurds not to take to the streets. 

“[Gencer] was taken to Syria to be trained as an assassin; he was taught to shoot by SADAT,” Cepni told Al-Monitor, echoing the claim made by other HDP members in the aftermath of the murder. The opposition, both from the Republican People’s Party and the HDP, has asked Defense Minister Hulusi Akar why Gencer was sent to Syria and whether he had any links with SADAT while there, but Akar replied that the question did not fall under the scope of the Ministry of Defense. The prosecutor’s indictment says that despite investigations into the young man’s activities in Syria, there has been no evidence of Gencer’s links with SADAT. However, the report quotes taxi drivers who drove Gencer to the pavilion regularly as saying that the young man kept asking for money from some people on the phone.

Earlier this month, the HDP lawyers filed a petition against the police and National Intelligence Organization (MIT) officers over the fact that no investigation has been launched into the security or intelligence officers seen to be responsible, negligent or deliberately inactive in stopping the attack. “There is a security post in front of the HDP office, and there is an anti-terror bureau on the same street,” Agac told Al-Monitor. “Not only was the party not protected well before the crime, but once the first shots were heard, it took 40 minutes for men in armored vests to get there. We will bring up at the first trial [on Dec. 29] all the neglect, the missing parts in the indictment, all the platforms that should have been explored but were not.”

“This is not simply the murder case, but a hate crime, an attack against a political party, an attack against the constitutional order,” said Cepni. “What makes it possible is the atmosphere created by the ruling party and its coalition partner, which constantly targets our party and our members.” 

The HDP, Turkey’s second-largest opposition party that swept 11.7% of the national vote in the 2018 elections, is currently facing closure after the country’s top prosecutor demanded the party’s dissolution on terror-related charges and the ban of 450 party members from holding political office for five years. Bekir Sahin, Turkey’s chief public prosecutor of the Court of Cassation, says in his revised indictment earlier this fall that the party has become “a focal point of the acts against the indivisible integrity of the state and nation.” 

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