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7 years on, families still seek justice for victims of ISIL massacre in SE Turkey

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On the seventh anniversary of the killing of 33 people in an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) suicide attack in southeastern Turkey, the families of the victims are still seeking justice since only one defendant in the trial has been sentenced to prison, Deutsche Welle Turkish service reported on Wednesday.

On July 20, 2015 a group of university students who were traveling to the Syrian town of Kobani (officially known as Ayn-al Arab) on the Turkish border to help with reconstruction efforts gathered outside the Amara Cultural Center in Suruç, Şanlıurfa province, to make a statement to the press.

The city of Kobani was recaptured from ISIL by a coalition of Kurdish forces supported by the US in January 2015 but was in ruins as a result of intense fighting.

A suicide bomb that went off during the gathering in front of the cameras claimed the lives of 33 people and injured more than 150. Most of the victims were members of the Socialist Party of the Oppressed (ESP) youth wing and the Socialist Youth Associations Federation (SGDF). ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack the next day. Relatives of the victims blamed the police for failing to take precautions.

The first hearing in the trial was held 21 months after the incident, in 2017.

In October 2021 the Şanlıurfa 5th High Criminal Court gave Yakup Şahin, the only suspect on trial, 34 aggravated life sentences in addition to 1,900 years, also sentencing him to pay TL 40,000 ($2,275) on charges that include “premeditated murder,” “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order,” “attempted murder” and “membership in an armed terrorist organization.”

Şahin is also accused of planning a terrorist attack against a large gathering of mainly pro-Kurdish and leftist groups in Ankara on October 10, 2015 that claimed the lives of 109 people.

“When we got to the prosecution stage, we saw that in fact almost nothing was done regarding the case file. The issues we wanted to be investigated hadn’t been investigated,” Sezin Uçar, one of the lawyers for the Suruç massacre victims’ families, told DW on Wednesday.

Uçar added that the situation of İlhami Balı (aka Ebu Bekir or Abu Bakr), one of the fugitive suspects in the case who is ISIS’s Turkey leader and was responsible for ordering a number of deadly bomb attacks, revealed the Turkish government’s links to the extremist group.

“It turned out that Balı … was being treated at a state hospital in Konya while he was wanted in the Suruç massacre case. During the same period he met with [Turkish] intelligence officers at a hotel in Ankara,” Uçar said.

The cases of fugitive suspects Balı and Deniz Büyükçelebi were previously separated since they were being sought for arrest and their statements had not been taken.

According to DW, a document sent to the court by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) showed Balı currently living in a village in Syria’s Idlib and Büyükçelebi detained in Damascus. The victims’ lawyers had demanded the extradition of both to Turkey.

Within the scope of the cases of Balı and Büyükçelebi, the lawyers had also demanded that then-prime minister and current leader of the opposition Gelecek (Future) Party Ahmet Davutoğlu be heard as a witness.

“We want him to tell everything he knows about all the massacres committed by the state between June and November 2015,” Uçar said, referring to a period that saw a series of terrorist attacks and was historically the most critical timeframe of the Turkish Republic.

Some of Davutoğlu’s remarks were previously interpreted as suggesting that some ruling politicians had prior knowledge of the attacks or deliberately failed to prevent them so that an environment of chaos would take hold in the country, the public would be frightened and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which lost in a general election in June of that year, would be returned to power.

Then-Suruç Police Chief Mehmet Yapalıal was fined TL 7,500 ($426) for negligence in failing to prevent the attack in 2017.

The punishment handed down to Yapalıal for his negligence in the Suruç attack led to harsh criticism on social media, with many saying that the court behaved as if the lives of 33 people were worth only TL 7,500.

The next hearing will be held on Dec. 5, DW said.

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