The Turkish government has entered damage control mode after the release this weekend of images that appear to show authorities dragging the body of a dead Kurdish man by the neck behind an armored vehicle.
The disturbing images have garnered coverage in top international news outlets. And the Turkish government's response has been nearly as disquieting as the images themselves.
Pro-government media in the country initially questioned the authenticity of the images and video, which have spread widely on social media in recent days. But many media sources eventually abandoned that line of argument, instead suggesting that dragging Kurdish people through the street is an acceptable way of making sure there are no bombs on the bodies -- implying that handling corpses in such a way is justified at a time when the government has renewed hostilities with the armed, outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
That rationale is absurd even on its own terms: If there was a bomb on the body, dragging it through the streets would presumably be the last thing a government would want to do, unless the goal was to injure the people in the streets or the officers in the vehicle.
Now, though, Turkish leaders are promising an investigation -- just not the kind you might expect. “It is unacceptable to treat any corpse this way, even if it is a dead terrorist,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Turkish media Monday. “Our interior ministry... will conduct a comprehensive investigation, not into the incident itself, but into the way in which this incident was reflected to the world.” (The Guardian notes that Davutoglu did "not explicitly [confirm] the veracity of the video and photographs" of the body.)
Photos first began surfacing on Twitter from pro-Kurdish accounts over the weekend. (Note: Some readers may find these images upsetting.)
According to Turkish media, the victim was Haci Lokman Birlik, a Kurd with family ties to the pro-Kurdish HDP party.
Violence in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast has reached devastating levels since the latest government-PKK conflict, recalling the bloodbaths of the 1990s. Fighting between security forces and PKK fighters erupted anew in July, as a two-year cease-fire crumbled after the PKK killed two police officers in apparent retaliation for an Islamic State-linked attack on volunteers hoping to bring aid to Syrian Kurds. Ankara has since launched air strikes against the PKK in Turkey and Iraq as the PKK has killed dozens of police officers and soldiers.
The clashes have squelched any hope of a peace process between Ankara and the PKK in the near future.
Turkish President Recep Erdogan's allies suffered a stinging defeat in recent elections, as some typically conservative Kurdish voters joined with secular Turks to rebuke Erdogan's party, the AKP. Erdogan has since used the specter of the PKK to wage war against the Kurdish region of the country, in a move that Turkey watchers say is intended to win him votes from ultra-nationalist Turks and fracture the nascent coalition of urban Turks and rural Kurds that routed him at the polls. After launching his assault, Erdogan called for new elections, which will be held Nov. 1.
Max Hoffman, a Turkey analyst at the Center for American Progress, told The WorldPost he believes the controversy over the images spells trouble for Erdogan's hopes to bolster anti-Kurdish sentiment and win a November victory.
"While many Kurds will tell you this sort of thing happens all the time and just doesn’t get out, images do tend to take on more power than mere verbal/written accounts," Hoffman wrote in an email. "I think this is a meaningful moment."
He noted that the photograph suggests an ugly racial aspect to the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish government.
"I think most reasonable Turkish citizens (Kurdish or not) see that image and are sickened," Hoffman wrote. "We don’t yet know the full story of how the man died, but the image undermines the government claims that they are conducting a professional and proportionate counter-terrorism operation. The image looks like a lynching and, indeed, it’s hard not to see a racial component to that sort of action -- it wasn’t enough to kill the man for security or political reasons, they had to desecrate his body."
Turkey's concerns over the Kurds have proven challenging for the U.S., which seeks to work with Kurds in Iraq and Syria to combat the Islamic State group -- but can hardly back away from its NATO ally Turkey.
Sophia Jones contributed to this report from Istanbul.