Murdered for saving the land they loved in Turkey, the UN wants an appeal

environmental activists murdered in Turkey, Aysin Büyüknohutçu, Ali Ulvi

Turkish environmentalists were killed for protecting the land. The least we can do is petition that justice is served.

Ali Ulvi and Aysin Büyüknohutçu were a loving couple who cared about their land, their forests and the planet. They were murdered five years ago in Antalya, Turkey while challenging mining in a stone quarry. The couple were shot on 9 May 2017 in their home in the Finike district of the Antalya Province in southern Turkey, after winning lawsuits against two mining companies that extracted marble and limestone in open pit quarries, polluting neighbouring villages located in centuries-old cedar and pine forests. 

The two companies as suspects, Bartu Mermer and Bahçeci Mermer, were ordered to cease operations until they remedied their environmental damage, but Bahçeci Mermer continued to operate illegally, and Bartu Mermer unsuccessfully sued Mr. Büyüknohutçu for defamation.

Instead of working with the defenders and the communities to make their business less destructive, the companies tried to find ways around them, Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders says. 

It’t not uncommon for Turkey to ignore human rights and environmental rights. Researchers who publish findings on cancer links and pollution are threatened with jail. We interviewed one researcher here about the issue. And others still risk going to jail

“It is high time for Turkey to seriously investigate what really happened in this very disturbing case, given that environmental human rights defenders around the world are often at risk of being killed,. There is much about this case that is suspicious, from the role allegedly played by mine owners to the death of the alleged killer in prison.” 

The Turkish government must get to the bottom of the murder. They were environmental defenders who challenged illegal polluting stone quarries in an agricultural area near Antalya, UN experts writing in a letter have said

“The man who confessed to killing them claimed he had been paid off by a local quarry owner,” Lawlor said. “Why has this line of investigation never been explored?” 

As it turns out, Ali Yumaç, a 31-year-old man who had moved to the area only a few days earlier, confessed to the killings, at first saying it was a robbery gone wrong. A few days later, he revealed that he was hired as a hitman by a local mine owner who paid him a large sum of money to kill the couple. 

Then authorities in Turkey even intercepted a letter he gave to his wife to deliver from prison. Addressed to the owner of Bahçeci Mermer mine, the letter demanded a second instalment for successfully carrying out the killing. A few months later, while still awaiting trial, Yumaç was found dead in a high security prison in a cell designed to be suicide-proof. His death was ruled a suicide. 

“Of course it is possible that there was no foul play, and that he really did commit suicide,” Lawlor said, “but with the authorities refusing to investigate further, how can anyone be certain?” 

In a report to the Human Rights Council earlier this year, Lawlor found that environmental human rights defenders were among those most at risk of killings, often while investigating businesses.  

“Having no investigation or an inadequate investigation creates impunity, and emboldens people to kill more human rights defenders,” Lawlor said.  

“I implore the Government of Turkey to ensure that all lines of investigation are followed to restore trust in the authorities and to secure peace of mind for the Büyüknohutçu family.” 

States must provide a safe and enabling environment in which environmental human rights defenders can operate free from threats, harassment, intimidation and violence, as highlighted in the Framework Principles on human rights and the environment, said Lawlor and two other experts.

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