The funeral of retired colonel Abdulkerim Kirca, who killed himself while on trial for three murders committed in the Kurdish region in the 1990s. Umit Bektas / Reuters
ISTANBUL // A dark chapter of Turkey’s war against Kurdish rebels and their suspected supporters in the 1990s, when thousands of people were victims of kidnappings and extrajudicial killings, is back on the political agenda after the arrest of a former general and the apparent suicide of a former intelligence officer, both of whom were on duty in the Kurdish region in the most violent times of the conflict.

Gen Levent Ersoz, who fled Turkey last year and re-entered the country clandestinely recently, was arrested two weeks ago as he prepared to undergo surgery for prostate cancer in a private hospital in Ankara, using a false name. Gen Ersoz was wanted in connection with the so-called Ergenekon gang, a right-wing group that prosecutors say wanted to topple the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Gen Ersoz was charged with "trying to overthrow the government of the Turkish Republic by force" as well as with "founding and leading an armed organisation". After his arrest, Gen Ersoz suffered a heart attack. It is not known when he can be questioned further.

Last week, news came that Abdulkerim Kirca, a former colonel of JITEM, the intelligence and counter-terrorism branch of the paramilitary Gendarmerie, had shot himself in the head in his home in Ankara. Kirca had been on trial for three murders committed in the Kurdish region in the 1990s.
"We estimate that there are about 3,000 unsolved crimes", most of which were committed in the 1990s, said lawyer Sezgin Tanrikulu, a former head of the Bar Association in Diyarbakir, the main city of Turkey’s Kurdish region. Some human rights activists have spoken of up to 20,000 cases. Mr Tanrikulu said that figure was exaggerated, but the mere fact that the Turkish public was debating these crimes was a step in the right direction. "At least it means they have not been forgotten, although we don’t know what the result will be," he said. "It is a very positive development."

In the early 1990s, the power of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a rebel group fighting for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey’s south-east, was at its height. Rebels killed many soldiers and were in control of parts of the region. The Turkish state reacted to the insurgency with military means, but also with clandestine action against PKK members and suspected supporters. There have been many reports of kidnappings and extrajudicial killings in the region, but few trials or convictions. Members of the security forces, collectively called the "deep state", are blamed for the crimes.
Some crimes were apparently committed to weaken support for the PKK. Others, such as a bomb attack on a bookstore in the town of Semdinli in 2005 that prosecutors say was perpetrated by JITEM members, are said to have been attempts to fan unrest in the Kurdish area to legitimise the heavy army presence there. In 2006, a former army officer, Gen Altay Tokat, admitted publicly that he had ordered his subordinates to "throw bombs at one or two key places" during his tour of duty in the south-east. Gen Tokat said he wanted to demonstrate to freshly arrived public servants from western parts of Turkey how dangerous the Kurdish region was.

Now, these events have come under new scrutiny. A former PKK member and later JITEM informant, Abdulkadir Aygan, has been quoted in the Turkish press as saying that Kirca had personally killed several people. After the arrest of Gen Ersoz, relatives of a Kurdish politician who disappeared in 2001 asked the state prosecutor in the city of Silopi to reopen an investigation against the former general, who was on duty in the region then.

Serdar Tanis and Ebubekir Deniz, local officials of the People’s Party for Democracy, or HADEP, the main Kurdish party at the time, were called to the office of the Gendarmerie in Silopi in 2001. They never came back. As Gen Ersoz was chief of the Gendarmerie in Silopi, the families of the two men think he knows something about their fate. "My mother just wants one thing," Mr Tanis’s brother Yakup told the Sabah newspaper. "She wants to know what happened to her son. If they have been killed, they should tell us where they buried them."

State prosecutors in Silopi said last month they want to investigate reports that victims of extrajudicial killings were thrown into wells near the border to Iraq. The Evrensel newspaper reported yesterday that the relatives of 47 people who went missing after their arrests had handed in petitions to the Silopi Bar Association in order to have the wells opened.

The fact that people with suspected links to the dark days of the PKK war have been arrested in the Ergenekon case has revitalised efforts to solve the murders. Gen Ersoz is not the only example. One of the main defendants in the Ergenekon case, former general Veli Kucuk, reportedly was the founder of JITEM. Ibrahim Sahin, a former head of a special police unit who was convicted for his involvement in a 1990s scandal revolving around extrajudicial killings, is also in custody after his recent arrest as suspect in the Ergenekon plot.

The Party for a Democratic Society, or DTP, Turkey’s current Kurdish party, has called on prosecutors in the Ergenekon case to look at the illegal killings in the Kurdish region. Selahattin Demirtas, a leading DTP deputy in Turkey’s parliament, said during a press conference last week that the bodies of more than 200 victims of the killings were buried in the municipal cemetery in Silopi.

"If you want to know what Ergenekon is, what the deep state is, you have to clear up those events," Mr Demirtas said.

Mr Tanrikulu agreed that the Ergenekon case is likely to have consequences for investigations in the south-east. "You cannot deal with the whole past in one trial alone, but it will be a start."

If the Ergenekon trial, which started in Istanbul last autumn, results in the conviction of the suspected plotters, "that will show the way" for investigations in the Kurdish region, he said.