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.
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