Paris Murder Mystery

Who's behind the assassination of three Kurdish women in the heart of the French capital?

PARIS — At first, it sounded like a horror story torn from the pages of American tabloids: the corpses of three women were found on the second floor office of an apartment building on Jan. 10. Two of the women had bullets holes in the back of their heads, the third was shot in the stomach and the forehead.

But this was here, in Paris, and just down the street from La Gare Du Nord, the city's main train station. Multiple murders don't happen often in the French capital. Guns, while very gradually becoming more common in parts of France, are rarely used by anyone other than authorities. Sometimes though, they are used by hit-men, terrorists, or hit-men hired by terrorists.

So when suited men pushed a bright blue gurney holding a small, limp corpse past journalists and passersby in the working class 10th arrondissement on Thursday afternoon, it brought home how different gun violence is here. This wasn't a random crime, a brutal robbery, a mentally ill person, or someone bullied until they retaliated, aided by easy access to guns. This was, as French authorities quickly recognized, a triple execution, almost certainly by a professional killer, apparently using a silencer. The triple murder was so discreet that in a multi-floor building, no one noticed when it happened. The women were, police believe, killed at around 3 p.m. on January 9, but their bodies were not found until after midnight.

Over the next 24 hours, French authorities -- including its anti-terror brigade -- quickly pieced together the key elements of what happened. Their ongoing investigation highlights the international political intrigue and the broader stakes surrounding this attack. Two of the three women were prominent members of France's large Kurdish immigrant community, 90 percent of whom come from Turkey, and the executions took place just as the Turkish media were reporting that Ankara and the militant Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) had come to an agreement aimed at ending nearly the three decades of violence that have claimed as many as 45,000 lives. The PKK is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, France and the European Union. 

One of those killed was Sakine Cansiz, 55, a well-respected figure in the Kurdish exile community and, Turkish authorities say, a founding member of the PKK. Some Kurds in Paris believed her to be close to Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is currently serving a life sentence in Turkey. Ocalan, who has apparently softened his attitudes on violence since his arrest, is apparently leading the peace talks with the Turkish government from his jail cell. Those talks are said to aim for a step-by-step cessation of hostilities: the PKK is to stop its attacks in March and, soon after, the Turkish state will restore the rights of its Kurdish minority, as well as satisfy some other grievances. It is unclear how the triple murder might affect those negotiations.

A second victim was Fidan Dogan, 32, who ran the Kurdish information center where the bodies were found. She was a representative of the Kurdistan National Congress, which is a Brussels-based coalition of supportive organizations across Europe. The third victim, Leyla Soylemez, is described as a recently arrived twenty-something Kurdish activist. She may well have been in the wrong place, with the wrong people, at the wrong time. Various friends and colleagues told French media that Dogan and Cansiz were aware enough of the dangers they faced in the one-bedroom apartment that acted as the unmarked office for the information center that they made sure to never be alone there, but that may have merely meant a larger death toll when one or both of them were targeted.

Shock over the executions has been sharp. Almost immediately after the discovery of the bodies late at night by friends and colleagues -- who suspected something was up when they noticed the lights were on in the office but the women weren't answering their phones -- word spread quickly through the city's Kurdish community. By morning on Thursday, hundreds of Kurds had gathered outside, in front of quickly installed police barricades. One of the many protest signs said: "We are all PKK!" Another read: "Turkey the assassin, [President] Hollande the accomplice!" Others called for a political solution to the Kurdistan problem. Many protesters, some with tears in their eyes, waved Kurdish flags.

The executions almost immediately unleashed a flurry of conspiracy theories in the crowd, including some on fresh-made protest signs, as to who was behind them. Suspects include the Turkish intelligence, a right-wing nationalist fringe grouping in Turkey called the "Gray Wolves," and Iranian or Syrian authorities who want to destabilize Turkey for being close to the West, the United States, and the French government.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn't take long to offer his own theory. He told journalists on Jan. 11 that the murders were likely the result of an internal battle within the PKK. His thin evidence: the killer or killers had gotten into a building with a security door code, and had somehow managed to get into the office without breaking down the door. He also suggested that the killings could have been the work of outside actors looking to sabotage the peace negotiations. 

His opinions are unlikely to carry much weight with Kurdish exiles whose feelings of destabilization are very real. An unidentified young man at the protest on Rue Lafayette summarized the sense of fury, and vulnerability, that the killings instilled in the Kurdish exile community. "Most of the people who are here have endured repression in Turkey. Most are political refugees who came to France, and found that here, too, the repression continues. There are massacres here, too. There is a feeling of anger, of being fed up."

Those who question the interest of French authorities -- who have repeatedly investigated allegations of extortion of Kurdish businesses with a "revolutionary tax" -- in pursuing justice in this murder investigation could take heart from comments that same day by President François Hollande. He declared that he was personally affected by the attack, as he knew one of the victims who "regularly came to meet" him and other political figures. 

But the French president has a very full plate at the moment. In addition to trying to restore the stagnant French economy, keep the euro afloat, and invert the curb on inflation that is approaching 11 percent, Hollande gave the green light on Friday for French troops to take part in a military intervention in Mali. Since Hollande's inauguration in May, Kurdish concerns have hardly been a pressing issue, and it is no surprise that he wants to wait for the investigation to advance before commenting further.

Kurds do have decades-old links to Hollande's Socialist party. A large wave of Kurdish immigrants came to France for economic reasons in the 1960s and 1970s, but those who followed in the 1980s tended to be more politically inclined activists. And they managed to convince then-President François Mitterrand's wife, Danielle, to raise awareness about the hardships and discrimination that they faced in Turkey and in parts of the Middle East. (Interestingly, when Iraqi Kurds finagled an essentially autonomous region out of the U.S.-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein, it took the wind out of some of their support in Europe.) 

Given the many big issues weighing on Hollande, Kurdish exiles in search of justice for the Paris murders might do well to stir a dead woman's personal link to the French president, to keep him focused on their lost comrades.

How any of this will affect the negotiations between the imprisoned Kurdish leader and Ankara, and what it means for the future of the Turkish Kurds, remains an open question. As is the mystery of who's responsible for three new corpses in Paris.



The Most Hated Woman in Israel

Haneen Zoabi has made her career speaking up for Israel's Arab minority. In Benjamin Netanyahu's Israel, that's becoming harder each day.

JEDEIDA-MAKKER, Israel — Sitting in a barren, slightly mildewy campaign office in this Arab village, I asked Haneen Zoabi, an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset, what it was like being the country's most hated politician. "It doesn't bother me at all," she said.

It's easy to believe. Zoabi's style is to head for the eye of the Arab-Jewish political storm -- the result being that while she is the Jewish majority's most hated politician, she may well be the Arab minority's most beloved.

Zoabi is running for reelection in Israel's Jan. 22 parliamentary election, but it was a struggle to even reach this point. Right-wing Knesset members moved to have her disqualified, saying she had "undermined the state of Israel" and "openly incited" against the government. Only a decision by the Israeli Supreme Court in late December overturned the ban. A poll published in Haaretz indicated that her legal victory stood to gain her small, virtually all-Arab party an additional Knesset seat.

Zoabi, 43, petite and pretty in black jacket, slacks, and pointed heels -- a modern, single woman in a conservative, patriarchal Arab subculture -- had just exhorted some 50 local residents to "use all the democratic tools at our disposal to carry on the struggle." She urged them not to be what she derided as "good Arabs," those who "thank Israel every day for not expelling them in 1948, who think they are not equal to Jewish citizens."

She had held the audience's attention for nearly two hours. In the front row sat middle-aged Arab women in Islamic headscarves next to high school girls in jeans. Afterward, amid the stream of well-wishers, the girls came up and exchanged phone numbers with her. "She's the only Arab woman who speaks for us, who gives us the courage to stand up to the racism," said one.

Zoabi, who hails from one of the most prominent families in Israeli Arab society, has not pulled her punches against the Israeli government. Israel has visited systematic injustice on its Arab minority -- not to mention the Palestinians -- but her views still seem excessively one-sided. Asked once by an Israeli TV interviewer whether she could say anything good about Israel, she laughed lightly and replied, "No, I can't."

But she is also far from the sinister threat to Israel's existence that her enemies make her out to be. She is not an advocate of terrorism or of throwing the Jews out of the country. Zoabi represents a minority of second-class citizens who, with very rare exceptions, are politically nonviolent. She rejects Israel as a country founded on the "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians, advocates the right of return to Israel for the millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, and wants to transform the country from an explicitly "Jewish state," with all its official and unofficial discrimination against non-Jews, into a fully egalitarian "state of all its citizens." It sounds appealing -- until you try to imagine Arabs being drafted alongside Jews to fight for this country, if called upon, against Arab enemies.

It's not just Zoabi who has come under fire. Israeli Arabs, who make up 21 percent of Israel's 8 million people, have become increasingly feared, distrusted, and shunned by mainstream Jewish society. The rightward drift of the Israeli public since the watershed 2000 Palestinian Intifada and, especially during the four years of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, has taken its toll on coexistence within Israel. Fully 67 percent of Israeli Jews won't even drive into an Israeli Arab town or village, Haifa University Prof. Sammy Smooha, the country's leading pollster of Jewish-Arab attitudes, found last year.

It's a foregone conclusion that voters this month will give Netanyahu an even more nationalistic government than he's got now. The Likud Party -- in whose ranks Netanyahu is now a relative liberal -- is running on a joint ticket with Yisrael Beiteinu, the party of ex-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a one-time member of the racist Kach movement who has said he hoped his Arab colleagues would one day be executed. Meanwhile, the rising star of the campaign is Naftali Bennett, who advocates annexing most of the West Bank to Israel and weakening the Supreme Court's ability to rein in the government and army.

Zoabi is a lightning rod for this antagonistic spirit in the country, and a barometer of it. She became Israel's Public Enemy No. 1 on May 31, 2010, as an Israel Arab activist aboard the Mavi Marmara, a ship chartered by a Turkish Muslim aid organization to lead the flotilla challenging Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. After unarmed Israeli naval commandos rappelled onto the ship and were attacked with wooden clubs and metal rods, armed Israeli soldiers stormed the ship and shot nine Turkish activists to death. A U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) panel interviewed more than 100 activists from the ship and concluded, "a number of passengers were injured or killed whilst trying to take refuge ... or assisting others to do so," and that the commandos "continued shooting at passengers who had already been wounded."

Israel brushed the report off as typical UNHRC bias, and by that time the nation had been convinced that the commandos acted in self-defense against a murderous mob of jihadists. The Israeli army, which confiscated hours of footage of the incident, released a single, brief segment showing the crowd attacking the first unarmed commandos and throwing one over a railing to the deck below. This is the one image Israelis have of the Mavi Marmara incident -- and it shaped the political climate to which Zoabi, who says she stayed below decks during the confrontation, returned home.

"For about a year and a half I was getting letters, e-mails, and telephone calls from people saying, ‘You are a terrorist, a traitor, a piece of shit, we will get you, you and all the traitors,'" she said.

The blowback reached her in the Knesset, where her privileges as an elected representative of the Israeli people were taken away from her. She was stripped of her diplomatic passport, her right to participate in Knesset discussions, and her right to vote in committee debates. Once, while Zoabi was speaking from the Knesset podium amidst catcalls, Anastassia Michaeli of Lieberman's extreme right-wing party advanced on her, screaming, and had to be restrained by guards, who then hustled Zoabi out of the chamber.

The assaults continued. When she went to the Supreme Court with supporters Dec. 26 to file her appeal against being disqualified from the campaign, she again had to be protected by police as right-wing radicals shouted "terrorist" as she passed. "Sometimes, not always, when I go to [a mixed Jewish-Arab suburb of Nazareth], or to the airport, or Jerusalem, people say these sorts of things to me. In the supermarket I've heard people tell the cashier not to serve me," she said.

On Dec. 30, the day Zoabi won her Supreme Court appeal, another Israeli Arab Knesset member, Ahmed Tibi, was leaving a university lecture hall after an angry debate with a far-right Knesset member when a teenage girl came up and spat on him, calling him a "child-murderer." Tibi blamed it on anti-Arab "incitement" emanating from the political arena.

He had a point: The Israeli political arena is becoming more inhospitable to the country's Arab minority. In the last couple of years, Israel has witnessed arson attacks by Jewish settlers on mosques and churches; a law barring Arab municipalities and other state-funded institutions from memorializing the 1948 "Nakba" -- Arabs' term for the "catastrophe" of their exile and destruction during Israel's War of Independence -- and a raft of other anti-Arab legislation, including a bill that would have barred mosques from using loudspeakers in their calls to prayer. Netanyahu initially supported the bill, saying, "We don't need to be more liberal than Europe," but his more temperate colleagues eventually convinced him to change his mind, dooming the legislation.

As Israel gears up for the Jan. 22 vote, Zoabi says she sees a rise in "Arab national pride" in this campaign. But as for the campaign going on among the country's Jewish majority, she sees the situation going from bad to worse. "This has been a more racist campaign than others," she said. "And politically, none of the strong [Zionist parties] are presenting a real alternative to Netanyahu."

Smooha said fewer and fewer Israeli Arabs are voting in national elections because they're growing increasingly alienated from the state. No surprise there: It's not just Haneen Zoabi -- the Arab minority in general gets a cold reception in this country. And with the right-wing parties growing more extreme and more popular, it's likely to get even colder.

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