Who killed Kurdish lawyer Tahir Elci in southeast Turkey?

Mahmut Bozarslan
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Protesters hold pictures of Kurdish lawyer Tahir Elci reading "They slaughtered him!" during a demonstration in Istanbul after he was killed in Diyarbarkir on November 28, 2015

Protesters hold pictures of Kurdish lawyer Tahir Elci reading "They slaughtered him!" during a demonstration in Istanbul after he was killed in Diyarbarkir on November 28, 2015 (AFP Photo/Ozan Kose)

Diyarbakir (Turkey) (AFP) - Almost a week after prominent Kurdish lawyer Tahir Elci was killed in broad daylight in a street in southeastern Turkey's main city, the Turkish authorities appear no closer to solving the crime amid bitter recriminations over who was to blame.

The killing of Elci during a gunfight between police and suspected Kurdish militants in Diyarbakir on November 28 has further raised tensions as government forces wage a military campaign against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

As the investigation into his death becomes a political football in Turkey's febrile politics, rights activists fear the crime itself may never be solved.

The main party representing Turkey's Kurdish minority, the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), contends that Elci was killed by a bullet fired from a police weapon.

However the government has dismissed such suggestions as outrageous, instead saying that PKK militants are to blame.

A video of the moment Elci was killed has caused a wave of interest on social media, showing him taking cover behind police officers as they open fire on an armed man running towards them.

Once the man passes them, they turn and fire in the opposite direction, where Elci was sheltering. A few seconds later, his body is seen laid out on the ground.

Elci, who had just emerged from giving a press conference, was killed with a single bullet to the head.

"From our point of view, it is very clear that at that moment and in this road, no-one was firing aside from the police," said HDP co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas.

"It's certain that that bullet which killed Tahir Elci was fired from a police weapon."

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu hit back, blaming the PKK for all the casualties in the violence, which also claimed the lives of two police officers.

"What proof does Demirtas has to accuse the state of murder?" asked Davutoglu.

"Accusing police who were in the process of chasing attackers is nothing less than an attempt to cover up the murder.

"It is an act committed by the same groups who tried to cover it up," he added.

The tensions come as the Turkish military wages an all out campaign against the PKK who have torn up a ceasefire and killed over 140 members of the security forces in recent months.

- 'Smacks of cover-up' -

Adding to the complications, the prosecutor for Diyarbakir and police protecting him were attacked this week by armed men at the scene of the violence.

Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said police had found two cartridges -- including the one that may have contained the bullet that killed Elci -- at the scene. But the bullet itself has yet to be found.

Turkish media reports said three people linked to the PKK were detained for the killing of the two police officers, which happened just before Elci was shot.

"It is imperative that Turkish authorities promptly and effectively investigate the full circumstances behind Elci's killing and bring those responsible to justice," Human Rights Watch said.

Andrew Gardner, the Turkey researcher of Amnesty International, said the investigation "already smacks of a cover up".

"The circumstances of his killing are far from clear... the chances of establishing the facts and the identity of the perpetrator(s) appear remote."

Elci, head of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, was a hugely prominent figure in Turkey's legal scene and his funeral last weekend drew tens of thousands of people.

He had represented families of victims of rights violations by Turkish security forces and also been the lead lawyer on the case of three Vice News journalists arrested by Turkey this year, one of whom is still behind bars.

A criminal investigation had been opened against Elci for saying in October on a TV show that the PKK was not a terrorist organisation. But he had also at times been highly critical of the PKK.