Page last updated at 06:49 GMT, Thursday, 2 April 2009 07:49 UK

Bones of the missing

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Silopi, south-eastern Turkey

Serdar Tanis and Ebubekir Deniz
The fate of many missing Kurds is still unknown

The dig began in the midst of a dust storm.

Under armed guard, a team of excavators opened up a disused well shaft behind an abandoned roadside restaurant in south-eastern Turkey.

They were searching for the remains of hundreds of civilians who disappeared at the height of the Kurdish separatist conflict in this region in the 1990s.

Many were last seen with members of Turkey's security forces.

For many Kurdish families, the dig marked the start of a long-stalled search for justice. More than 70 have now applied to local lawyers for help to find their relatives.

"Our first demand is to find the bones of the missing," lawyer Abdulaziz Tokay explains.

"But the most important thing is to identify those responsible for their disappearance and punish them."

The restaurant
Excavators have been searching for remains behind this abandoned restaurant

The dig at this site unearthed several bones and pieces of cloth. They have been sent for DNA testing while the search goes on.

The Tanis family is one of many watching these unprecedented events closely.

Eight years ago, Serdar Tanis had just opened a local branch of the pro-Kurdish HADEP party. On 25 January 2001, he was summoned to the regional gendarme base.

Witnesses saw him enter the compound with a colleague, Ebubekir Deniz, before they both disappeared.

For six days, staff at the base denied the politicians had ever been there. On the seventh day, they said the two had left to join separatist PKK insurgents in the mountains.

"Serdar's only crime was to be district chairman of a perfectly legal political party," his brother Yakup says.

"The Turkish state said there were no Kurds then, everyone was a Turk. But HADEP said: 'We exist and have rights.' The state saw that as a threat," he explains.

'Credible and convincing'

Rifling through thick case files, the family's lawyer, Tahir Elci, pulls out what he says is a letter written by Serdar Tanis to Turkey's interior minister, days before he disappeared.

Adnan Ekmen
There were dozens of unsolved killings then, thousands of human rights violations...we were powerless.
Adnan Ekmen
Former human rights minister

In it, he said he had received death threats from the regional gendarme commander.

The European Court of Human Rights found the letter, and other evidence, "credible and convincing".

In 2005, it found Turkey guilty of violating Mr Tanis' and Mr Deniz's right to life.

But in Turkey, the case has been blocked, says Mr Elci.

"The serious problem in Turkey about human rights is impunity," he says.

He estimates that more than 1,000 Kurds disappeared at the height of the conflict between the security forces and PKK rebels fighting for a separate Kurdish state.

"It is impossible to touch the security forces for their crimes against civilians," Mr Elci says. "Many victims are still looking for justice."

Public confession

But something significant has just changed.

Dozens of men are now on trial in Turkey, accused of forming an ultra-nationalist gang called Ergenekon and plotting to overthrow the government.

For the first time, senior security officers are among the suspects - including many notorious to most Kurds.

Lawyers here have petitioned prosecutors to expand the Ergenekon case and launch a proper investigation into the fate of the missing.

Murat Aslan's grave
Murat Aslan's body was found in a hillside years after his abduction

There are already some clues.

Just outside Silopi, a small circle of white stones in the middle of a field marks the spot where the body of Murat Aslan was found.

He vanished in 1995, after witnesses saw him being forced into a car in the city of Diyarbakir by security forces.

Years later, his father read the newspaper confession of a former informer for a shadowy branch of the gendarmes widely known as JITEM. The existence of JITEM has never been formally acknowledged.

The informer, Abdulkadir Aygan, claimed JITEM tortured and burned Murat Aslan as a suspected PKK sympathiser.

The informer gave the location of his grave, and claimed such practice was routine. He said JITEM felt untouchable.

The Aslan family filed a court case, but the gendarme commander at the time ignored requests for a statement. The prosecutor never even drafted an indictment.

Yakup Tanis
We want the people responsible for those crimes to be convicted
Yakup Tanis, brother of missing politician

Gendarme headquarters in Ankara declined a request to respond to allegations of abuses. But the unprecedented arrests in the Ergenekon trial have emboldened others to speak out.

Adnan Ekmen was state minister for human rights when Turkey's fight against the PKK was at its fiercest.

"The mentality here is this: if the existence of the state is at stake, illegal action is legitimate," he told the BBC.

"There were dozens of unsolved killings then, thousands of human rights violations. But our ministry was merely symbolic. We were powerless."

The Ergenekon case is vast - and still expanding - with new arrests and claims almost daily. Critics accuse the government of using the trial to punish opponents.

But in the south-east, many Kurds are pinning high hopes on the case.

"I think the Ergenekon trial is a great moment for Turkey, no matter where it leads," lawyer Abdulaziz Tokay says.

"No-one would've thought a general could be tried in this country. It's a sign Turkey has taken a step towards the rule of law."

Yakup Tanis tells me that since the excavations began, his family has received anonymous phone calls, warning them not to push too far.

But he is determined to discover what happened to his brother - and to find him.

"We want Turkey to finally confront that era," he says, a picture of Serdar propped against the wall beside him. "We want the people responsible for those crimes to be convicted."

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