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Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding

Erasing Memory, Suppressing Justice: The Impact of Trustee Appointments on Kurdish Local Governance in Turkey

The ‘state of exception’ rule under which Kurds in Turkey live reached a new level in 2016. Until then, Kurds had been able to democratize local governance through municipalities to some extent, using them as an example of the decentralized governance model they see as a solution for the ‘Kurdish question’ in Turkey as a whole.

In September 2016, though, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan used emergency powers to amend Law 5393 on municipalities with Decree Law 674. Using this decree, the government then began appointing trustees to municipalities and removing elected Kurdish mayors from office on flimsy allegations of illegal activities.

The practice of appointing trustees can be seen as part of the Turkish state’s comprehensive and systemic project of denial, destruction, and assimilation of the Kurdish people, which was introduced with the 1925 Eastern Reform Plan and continues to this day. This practice uses the administrative, social, and cultural codes of colonial rule. It was first implemented  immediately after the collapse of the 2013-2015 peace process, which aimed to resolve the Kurdish conflict through democratic and peaceful means. In addition to the administrative deprivation of the social and cultural rights of Kurds, trustee appointments attacked the achievements of the peace process—including local efforts to pursue accountability for past state crimes.

In this analysis, we look at how removals of Kurdish mayors and trustee appointments have affected dealing with the past and the peace-building scene in Diyarbakir. We will do this by focusing on three examples: victims’ participation in the Lice Massacre case, the demolition of the Roboski Monument, and the exclusion of pro-peace civil society from governance.

The first example we will examine is relatively little known. In 2013, a lawsuit was filed in Diyarbakır regarding crimes committed by state officials in the Kurdish village of Lice on October 20, 1993. After the end of the peace process in 2015, the case was transferred to İzmir, which is approximately 1,400 kilometers away from Diyarbakir. The transfer of such cases to distant cities for security reasons is common in Turkey. It is intended to make it difficult for the families of the victims to follow the cases closely. Travelling such long distances is a financial burden that not all families can easily bear. Therefore, these transfers are aimed at suppressing the families’ struggle for justice.

Following the transfer of the Lice case to Izmir, the Kayapınar Municipal Council decided to cover accommodation and travel expenses for the victims in order to support their fight for justice. They transferred a sum of money to the account of the Diyarbakır Branch of the Human Rights Foundation (İnsan Hakları Derneği, İHD), which was following the case together with the victims. After the elected mayor of Kayapınar was removed from office, the appointed trustee demanded the return of the municipality’s financial contributions to the victims of the Lice Massacre.

In 2016, with the appointment of a trustee, all previous transactions and activities of the municipality were analysed. The İHD was notified of the return of the amount paid by the municipality. It would be unrealistic to think that the municipal administration needed such a small amount of money. The trustee wanted to show that the municipality opposed the families’ struggle for justice and was on the side of the state. It was therefore an attempt to reverse the practices of the Kayapınar Municipal Council under the elected mayor, who had sided with the Kurdish families in their struggle for justice against past state violence. The trustee clearly saw “correcting” this step as a priority to obstruct any efforts to deal with the past.

The return of this money did not end the families’ mobilisation for justice, but it added to the state’s punitive measures against them.  The attendance of the families at the subsequent hearings was inevitably reduced to a representative level, because they had to attend at their own expense. The support of the local administration was empowering not only for the families seeking justice, but also for the İHD, as it allowed them to feel the support of the local administration in their struggle for justice. In parallel with the attempts to block the pathways to justice, the accused high-ranking soldiers were acquitted at the end of 2018, adding to the long list of cases wherein state perpetrators got off with impunity.

This case shows how obstructing Kurdish democratic political participation is not the only aim of trustee appointments for the Turkish state. The state also uses this policy to protect its ‘flawless’ image and erase the memory of state violence.

For this reason, it also became common practice for trustee administrations to demolish monuments and symbols that denigrated that ‘flawless’ face. Monuments and symbols that were seen as contrary to the official narrative or as challenges to impunity for crimes committed against Kurds were among the first targets of trustees’ attacks. These monuments were built under the remit of elected mayors and were intended to commemorate victims of state violence. For example, in 2017, the trustee for Lice Municipality removed the names of Ceylan Önkol and Medeni Yildirim from two parks. Ceylan Önkol was a 12-year-old child killed by a mortar shell explosion. Medeni Yildirim was an 18-year-old man who was killed by a fire opened by soldiers. Both hold an important place not only in Diyarbakir’s collective memory of state violence against Kurdish civilians, especially children and young people. Removing their names from the park conveyed a clear message: the state did not want to honour and commemorate those names and sought to obstruct understanding of  the history of state violence in Kurdish regions.

This was not the only monument that was targeted. On December 28, 2011, 34 Kurdish civilians, including 17 children, were killed when F-16 jets of the Turkish Armed Forces bombed their convoy in the Uludere district of Şırnak. This crime became known as the ‘Roboski Massacre.’ While an investigation was opened, judicial authorities ultimately decided not to prosecute the perpetrators. The attempt to bring the case to court once again resulted in impunity, both on the national level and on the international level.

To commemorate those who were killed in the massacre, in 2013, Diyarbakır Kayapınar Municipality unveiled the Roboski Monument, made by sculptor Suat Yakut. The monument depicted a seated woman, symbolising the mothers of Roboski, with her arms held up to the sky, surrounded with the names of those who were killed. Families of the victims of the massacre were present at the launch event, stating “We want peace. We don’t want mothers to cry anymore.”

This monument, built in the busiest and most frequently visited part of the city center, served as a reminder of impunity and a witness to injustice. It kept the memory of a crime committed by the state alive in Diyarbakır’s residents’ minds. Commemorations of the Roboski Massacre were held at the site of the monument. Civil society organisations also used it as a meeting place to come together to publicly call for justice.

When a trustee was appointed to Kayapinar Municipality, one of the first decisions their administration made was that this monument would be demolished. All objections and reactions of the society were disregarded, and the Roboski Monument was destroyed in January 2017. In doing so, the municipality’s previous efforts for truth, justice, and memorialisation for past violence were also targeted both physically and politically. By demolishing the symbols that reminded the people of their belonging and history, the state’s colonial approach signalled an intention to rewrite the destructive history of the state, while trying to erase the truth of what Kurds had experienced from the public.

Kurdish local governments have also played a pivotal role in opening doors for the peace, justice, and human rights-based work of Kurdish civil society organisations. For example, the Diyarbakır City Council is a platform where civil society organisations can meet the local administration to discuss various issues of concern in Diyarbakır and make collective decisions. The priorities of this platform, where decision-making mechanisms were expanded to include civil society, were issues like as social peace mechanisms, strengthening civil society, cultural activities, and justice. The municipality also allocated logistical support to civil society organisations in order to increase the visibility of their work on issues related to peace and justice. This included billboards in public spaces and spaces in venues affiliated to the municipality in which human rights organisations could hold events. For Newroz celebrations on 21st March, the Diyarbakır Municipality would allocate its shuttles to transfer people to the celebration area for free. The trustee, on the other hand, has not provided support of any kind. They have banned certain banners and flags, reducing the participation in and vibrancy of celebrations of this proud Kurdish cultural and political tradition.

Overall, trustees have worked to cut the ties between civil society and local governments and to dismantle all democratic participation structures within municipalities. Official institutions such as provincial directorates of ministries that support the trustee regime have been brought to the fore in their place. With these structures, the trustees reinforce the securitization and militarization of the Kurdish region, promoting continued conflict. The local democratic mechanisms they have targeted, by contrast, open space for and strengthen democratic participation and strengthen peaceful methods of advocacy for Kurdish rights.

The trustee system that has been in place since 2016 has been a constraint on Kurdish experiments in local governance, on Kurdish civil society, and on the struggle for justice and peace in Turkey. If the pro-Kurdish DEM Party wins back control of districts to which trustees were appointed after the 2019 elections, it is likely that this policy will be used against them once again. It is therefore of utmost importance to stand firmly against any potential attempts by the government to appoint trustees or engage in other undemocratic practices following the March 31 local elections.

(Photo: ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP via Getty Images)

About the Authors

Nisan Alici


Nisan Alici is a post-doctoral researcher at Queen’s University Belfast. She holds a Ph.D. from the Transitional Justice Institute, Ulster University. Her PhD project focused on the prospects for transitional justice in the ongoing Kurd…

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Abdullah Zeytun


Abdullah Zeytun is a human rights defender and lawyer. He served as the president of the Diyarbakır branch of the Human Rights Association from 2018 until 2023, as well as on the Board of Directors of the Human Rights Association headquarters…

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