Is Turkey blocking attempts to investigate war crimes against women in Afrin?

Since taking control of the Syrian Kurdish region of Afrin in 2018, the Government of Turkey has only responded to one parliamentary inquiry on the status of women and girls abducted by Syrian National Army (SNA) factions, official records show.

Four other inquiries — all of which were submitted after a September 2020 United Nations report documented arbitrary detentions, torture, and widespread sexual and gender-based violence in Turkish-controlled Afrin — have not only not been answered, but are not included in the Turkish Parliament’s online database of written questions and research proposals at all.

Turkey allows members of its parliament to submit written questions to government ministers. These are routine inquiries that are made on a regular basis by virtually all MPs from all parties.

On September 15, 2020, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria published its most extensive documentation yet of the extent of arbitrary detentions, torture, and sexual and gender-based violence in Turkish-controlled areas:

“The situation for other Kurdish women remains precarious. Since 2019, Kurdish women throughout the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions have faced acts of intimidation by Syrian National Army brigade members, engendering a pervasive climate of fear which in effect confined them to their homes. Women and girls have also been detained by Syrian National Army fighters, and subjected to rape and sexual violence — causing severe physical and psychological harm at the individual level, as well as at the community level.”

On September 18, 2020, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet called on Turkey to investigate these crimes:

“People living in these areas whose rights have been violated are entitled to protection and a remedy. In this regard, I urge Turkey to immediately launch an impartial, transparent and independent investigation into the incidents we have verified, account for the fate of those detained and abducted by the affiliated armed groups and hold accountable those responsible for what may, in some instances, amount to crimes under international law, including war crimes.”

Thus, there are sound domestic and international legal reasons for MPs to seek information from the government about reports of kidnappings, disappearances, and sexual and gender-based violence in areas of Syria that Turkey controls.

Despite this, only one inquiry on this subject has received a formal answer. Dilan Dirayet Taşdemir, a HDP MP for Ağrı province, submitted her questions on September 7th, 2018. They included requests for information on the number of women and girls that had been kidnapped and on what, if any, measures the Turkish government was taking to return missing persons to their families.

At this time, there had been little international attention paid to the situation in Afrin, which had only been under the control of Turkish forces and affiliated rebel groups for six months.

Yet dozens of women had already gone missing. One was Amal Hussein Omar, a young woman about whom Taşdemir specifically inquired.

Amal’s disappearance was first reported by Kurdish human rights monitors on September 2nd, 2018. According to these accounts, she was kidnapped from Afrin’s Ashrafiyah neighborhood by members of the Hamza Division and was tortured in custody.

Nearly two years later, her whereabouts are still unknown. The Hamza Division has been credibly accused of a wide variety of war crimes, and is particularly infamous for abducting civilian women.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu responded to Tasdemir’s questions on November 30, 2020, more than two years after they were asked.

A screenshot of the record of Taşdemir’s written questions, noting that they were submitted on September 7, 2018 and answered on November 30, 2020.

The answer contained no specific reference to the status of women or girls, the fate of Amal Hussein Omar, or measures being taken in accordance with international law to stop rights abuses. Instead, Çavuşoğlu stated common talking points about Turkey’s support for Syrian refugees and ongoing fight against the PKK.

The questions posed by HDP MP Taşdemir and answer provided by Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu.

While the presence of a formal response distinguishes this inquiry from others on the same subject, the content of the response did not address any of the questions posed—or engage with other evidence of similar rights violations that has surfaced in the time since they were submitted.

HDP MPs Ayşe Sürücü, Tülay Hatimoğulları, and Feleknas Uca all submitted inquiries specifically regarding the status of women and girls abducted by SNA groups in the months after the publication of the UN report. They publicized these questions on official social media pages.

On November 24, 2020, Sürücü submitted a parliamentary research proposal on human rights abuses targeting women and increasing gender inequality in Turkish-controlled Afrin, Ras al-Ain, and Tal Abyad.

On November 26, 2020, Feleknas Uca submitted written questions to Çavuşoğlu inquiring about the number of women and girls kidnapped by Turkish-backed forces, efforts to return missing persons to their families, and efforts to hold armed groups accountable for violations of the laws of war.

Uca stated in a Tweet that, one month after the questions were asked, she had not received an answer.

On December 29th, 2020 Tülay Hatimoğulları submitted questions regarding allegations of sexual violence in detention sites in Turkish-controlled regions of Syria, as well as claims that abducted women and girls had been sent to Libya. She specifically cited UN findings.

On December 30th, 2020, Ayşe Sürücü submitted similar questions on the same topics.

None of these inquiries have been published in the Turkish Parliament’s official online record of written questions and parliamentary research proposals.

Other recent questions and research proposals submitted by Sürücü, Uca, and Hatimoğulları are recorded in the searchable system. From October 1, 2020 to today, 17 recorded sets of questions are attributed to Sürücü, 18 to Uca, and 20 to Hatimoğulları.

Questions and research proposals related to the situation in Turkish-controlled areas of Syria have also been recorded during this time period, including four specifically mentioning Afrin.

All four recorded written questions mentioning Afrin, Syria submitted after October 1, 2020.

This suggests that the omission of these questions is not due to the fact that they address issues in Syria nor the fact that they were asked by certain MPs alone.

It is unclear whether questions on other topics are similarly left out of the record. However, the omission of four separate inquiries about the same well-documented issue is notable.

The fact that the only answer provided to an inquiry about the fate of women and girls abducted in Afrin was published two years after the questions were asked and did not once reference the topic itself is also relevant. It is both a clear failure to address the issue, and suggests that government officials may have attempted to avoid more recent questions by providing a response to older ones.

This attitude towards routine, legal inquiries made by elected officials is far from the “impartial, transparent and independent investigation” the United Nations called for. It is also a direct refusal to “account for the fate of those detained and abducted by the affiliated armed groups.” The status of these inquiries—and any further inquiries made into abductions of women and girls in Turkish-occupied Syria—should be closely monitored.

Researcher following Kurdish politics, Syria, Turkey.

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Meghan Bodette

Meghan Bodette

Researcher following Kurdish politics, Syria, Turkey.

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