Turkey: Irregularities in investigation into killing of environmental rights defenders (joint communication)

BACKGROUND

On 13 September 2021, I wrote a letter to the Government of Turkey and mining companies Bahçeci Mermer and Bartu Mermer regarding irregularities in the investigationinto the deaths of environmental human rights defenders, Mr. Ali Ulvi Büyüknohutçu and Ms. Aysin Büyüknohutçu.

Mr. Ali Ulvi Büyüknohutçu was the spokesperson for Taurus Mountains and Mediterranean Coasts Environment Association Platform (TORACDER). He and his wife, woman human rights defender Ms. Aysin Büyüknohutçu, were environmental defenders, protecting forests, rivers, agriculture and local heritage sites from the effects of open-pit mining in the Finike district in southern Turkey. The couple denounced in particular the deforestation of the Calabrian pine and cedar tree groves to make way for mining activities, which polluted the surrounding areas.

This is a shorter version of the original communication. They Turkish Government has responded, refuting the involvement of other actors in the killing. Bahçeci Mermer and Bartu Mermer did not respond within the 60 day confidentiality period. If a reply is received it will become available at https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/Tmsearch/TMDocuments.

Read the Turkish Government's response

ALLEGATIONS

In October 2015, the Antalya Second Administrative Court ruled to revoke the mining license of Bartu Mermer open-pit mine. The decision came after a case was brought by Ali Ulvi Büyüknohutçu and around 50 other villagers, who requested the annulment of the decision to grant a mining license to Bartu Mermer, after the Local Forestry Directorate decided that an environmental
impact assessment (EIA) would not be necessary. The court ruled that an environmental impact assessment survey would be required due to the sale of the project and potential for environmental damage. The decision was appealed by the Ministry of Forestry and Water, the Antalya Governorship and Bartu Mermer, who also requested a stay of execution while the trial took place.

On 4 July 2014, Bartu Mermer opened a defamation case against Mr. Büyüknohutçu at the Antalya 9th Civil Court of First Instance, seeking 100,000TL in compensation. On 23 February 2017, it lost the defamation case. On 14 April 2017, Bartu Mermer also lost its appeal against the EIA requirement following a ruling by the 14th Chamber of the Council of State. The decision was believed to have set a precedent which could lead to the closure of 13 quarries in the region.

On 1 February 2017, the Antalya Forestry Directorate sent a notice to another mining company, Bahçeci Mermer quarry, informing them that their license had expired since they had not sought renewal. The notice came after TORACDER, of which Mr. Büyüknohutçu was spokesperson, sent a complaint to the Forestry Directorate that the quarry had been operating for a year since its mining license had expired.

When the company reportedly continued to mine in the months after February 2017, TORACDER filed a complaint to the Prime Minister’s office.

On 9 May 2017, Mr. Ali Ulvi Büyüknohutçu and Ms. Aysin Büyüknohutçu were shot dead in their home.

On 12 May 2017 Mr. X, a man reportedly with a history of working at mines and who had moved to the area 15 days previous, was detained. He confessed to the murder, initially saying that he was unemployed and killed the couple as part of a robbery. On 18 May 2017, he changed his statement, claiming that he had been offered 50,000TL by a man named “Çirkin” (Ugly), to carry out the killing and make it look like a robbery. Çirkin, allegedly the owner of Bahçeci Mermer, had offered him 3,000 lire up front but had failed to pay the rest on completion.

Authorities intercepted a letter that Mr. X gave to his wife, which was addressed to the owner of Bahçeci Mermer. The letter read “Pay the money as you promised me. If you don’t, I will tell the truth on judgment day. You said, ‘kill them and we will pay’. Why are you waiting? In 10 days if you don’t pay, your life will be in my pocket.”

On 19 May 2017, Mr. X’s wife was arrested for “aiding and abetting a crime”.

On 20 September 2017, following multiple reported delays in the investigation, Mr. X was found dead in his cell in a high security L-type prison. His death was ruled to have been suicide by the Alanya Prosecutor’s Office. According to information received, inmates are usually under close supervision and the prison was designed to be “suicide proof”. A request to open an investigation file into his death was refused.

Mr. X’s wife was released on bail on 15 March 2018 and acquitted by the Elmalı High Criminal Court on 17 April 2018, reportedly without a clear reason being stated. The verdict was upheld on appeal and her case is reportedly now in the Court of Cassation.

No further suspects were charged in relation to the murder of Mr. Ali Ulvi Büyüknohutçu and Ms. Aysin Büyüknohutçu. The decision not to investigate the owners of the local marble quarries was appealed and is currently at the Elmalı Penal Court of Peace.

CONCERNS

In the communication, we expressed our deep concern over the alleged irregularities in the investigation into the killing of environmental human rights defenders Mr. Ali Ulvi Büyüknohutçu and Ms. Aysin Büyüknohutçu. We find the failed defamation lawsuit against Mr. Büyüknohutçu concerning as it may have unduly stigmatised the work of environmental defenders in the region. In this regard, we express our particularly concern that the investigation may not have fully considered the motives of the murders, which appear to link the killing of the human rights defenders with the local mines against which they had been advocating. We are furthermore alarmed that Mr. X died under suspicious circumstances shortly after claiming that the killing was ordered by the owner of a local mine.

We reminded the Government of Turkey of the report presented by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders to the 46th Session of the Human Rights Council, on the killings of human rights defenders. In the report she highlighted that environmental defenders, and those working in the context of the human rights impacts of business activities, were among those most at risk. We implored the Government to ensure that the killings of environmental defenders are condemned and investigated fully, to prevent their re-occurrence.

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