Tuesday, May 12, 2009

After Massacre, Village Guards Under Fire

The fallout continues from last week's massacre in southeast Turkey, in which 44 people were killed at an engagement ceremony in a small village near the city of Mardin. Perhaps the most significant debate about the the event has revolved around the involvement of "village guards" -- members of govnernment-sponsored, paramilitary force created to fight the PKK -- in the attack. As mentioned in the previous post, the village guard system has long been criticized by human rights groups, who say it has created a violent division in Kurdish society and has allowed militia members to use their power to settle scores, expropriate land and engage in criminal behavior. Both sanctioned by law and above the law, the village guards -- armed and funded by the state -- operate with little supervision or accountability.

In the wake of the attack, there has been call for reforming or even eliminating the village guard system. Both will be difficult to do. According to government figures, there are more than 50,000 village guards on the state's payroll. In a certain respect, the system is a kind of public works project in the impoverished southeast. Meanwhile, decommissioning a force this large -- as well as then protecting them from revenge attacks -- seems like an almost impossible task, although one that will have to be part of any comprehensive solution to Turkey's ongoing Kurdish problem.

The Jamestown Foundation has a good roundup about the new debate over the village guard issue. From the report:
Village guards, numbering around 90,000 at the height of the PKK's campaign, are currently around 58,000-strong. Although the system began as a temporary measure, it has become an integral part of Turkey's security apparatus. The guards, however, have frequently been criticized for their alleged involvement in criminal activities or human rights abuses. According to Interior Ministry records, village guards were the target of over 5,200 criminal investigations and as a result 853 guards were arrested for various crimes (Cihan Haber Ajansi, May 8). A recent report released by the Human Rights Association revealed that between January 1992 and March 2009 village guards committed various human rights violations, including forced evacuation, burning villages, kidnapping and rape. In the last seven years guards have killed 51 people and wounded 83 (ANKA, May 9)....

....A spokesman for the Turkish military, Brigadier-General Metin Gurak defended the village guards during his weekly press briefing. He said that it would be unwise to hold the entire institution responsible (Milliyet, May 8). Interior Minister Atalay supported this view and defended the village guards. Though noting that the government will take into account the criticism of the guards, Atalay added that the dissolution of this institution was not on the agenda (www.cnnturk.com, May 9).

The deputy prime minister and government spokesman Cemil Cicek, also supported the system, arguing that it had emerged out of necessity and these conditions remained. Cicek added: "It is necessary to avoid hasty conclusions. If some of them are involved in wrongdoing, then necessary action will be undertaken... It is wrong to attack the entire institution, because of the recent incident" (www.ntvmsnbc.com, May 10).

The debate on the village guard system is likely to continue and the opponents of Turkey's anti-terrorism policy will repeat their demands for its dissolution. However, many security experts regard it as a necessary counter-terrorist tool and argue that Turkey will need this institution as long as the PKK remains active. Since the government and the Turkish military appear to share this view, and PKK terrorism is unlikely to end soon, a partial reform of this system may be more realistic rather than its complete dissolution.
You can read the full article here.

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