Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 February 2000
Issue No. 467
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Tales from the crypt

By Gareth Jenkins

On 17 January Turkish police killed Huseyin Velioglu, the leader of Turkish Hizbullah, and arrested two of his accomplices during a raid on a house in Beykoz, an affluent Istanbul suburb. Using information from the confessions of the two militants and documentary material found in the house, the police launched a massive operation, arresting over 1,000 suspected Hizbullah militants across the country and uncovering a series of secret burial sites for the organisation's victims. As of Monday, 48 corpses had been recovered, all of them tortured before death, often while being filmed, and many of them buried alive. Turkish security officials believe that the number of bodies recovered may eventually run into hundreds.

"We currently estimate that over 1,500 people were murdered by Hizbullah over the last ten years, but the real total may be much higher at 2,000 or more," said a Turkish security official.

Hizbullah grew out of the Kurdish Islamist movement of the early 1980s when Velioglu, ironically a former classmate of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan, broke away to form his own group dedicated to using violence to establish a Kurdish Islamic state based on the model of Iran. Velioglu slowly built up a network of militants. Turkish security officials also claim, despite denials by Teheran, that the organisation received considerable financial and logistical support from Iran. Many captured Hizbullah militants have reportedly named both camps in Iran where they were trained and the names of Iranian officials who trained them.

However, Velioglu's decided initially to concentrate on fighting not the Turkish state but the PKK, whose combination of Marxist ideology and Kurdish nationalism he saw as a more immediate threat to his own organisation. During the early 1990s Hizbullah was able to operate with apparent impunity in southeast Turkey, assassinating hundreds of PKK members and its alleged sympathisers as well as killing members of rival Islamist groups. Although there is no evidence of active high level support for Hizbullah from either the Turkish military or the civilian government, there is little doubt that the Turkish authorities made little effort to clamp down on the organisation. Local police were loathe to investigate, much less arrest, anyone suspected of killing a PKK supporter. There is also considerable evidence to suggest that there were sympathisers in the police and the shadowy "Special Teams" set up to combat the PKK who actively colluded with Hizbullah. In Batman, Velioglu's home town, Hizbullah was able to operate with such freedom that its victims were usually killed on the street and the murderers able to walk away with no fear of being arrested.

In 1998 as the PKK began to lose ground to the Turkish military, Hizbullah signed a peace agreement with the PKK and turned its attention to the Turkish secular state. The following year the organisation began moving into cities in western Turkey, particularly Istanbul, and raising funds by kidnapping, robbing and murdering moderate Islamist businessmen. It was after a Hizbullah militant used a credit card belonging to one of these businessmen that Turkish police were able to launch the operation that ended in the storming of the safe house in Istanbul.

The revelations of the full horror of Hizbullah's campaign has also deepened the polarisation between Turkey's more moderate Islamists and the secular establishment. Last week the Constitutional Court held another round of hearings into a case brought by the Public Prosecutor Vural Savas for the closure of the Islamist Virtue Party (VP), on the grounds that it was a successor to the Welfare Party (WP), which was banned by the same court in January 1998. VP Chairman Recai Kutan bitterly complained that the state seemed more interested in persecuting moderate, devout Muslims while ignoring, or even nurturing, terrorists such as Hizbullah.

His comments drew an angry response from the Turkish military, which issued a statement accusing the VP of "having a role in the organisation and culmination of reactionary movements in Turkey." The military claimed that it was the VP's "guilty feelings" that had prompted Kutan's outburst, ominously noting that: "Political parties that have acted as advocates of such a mentality have been closed three times by the Constitutional Court, so far."

But there is also little doubt that, whether nationalist or pseudo-religious, the most powerful threats to the Turkish state to have emerged over the last 20 years have both come from the southeast of the country, where decades of state neglect have meant that living standards lag far behind those in the west of the country. Significantly, a survey of the Hizbullah militants already in jail showed that an overwhelming majority were young Kurdish males from poor backgrounds, many of them migrants from rural areas where their villages had been forcibly evacuated during the struggle between the Turkish army and the PKK.

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