ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkish authorities have forcibly evicted tens of thousands of people in security operations in a predominantly Kurdish district of southeast Turkey, a human rights group said Tuesday.
Amnesty International said in a new report that authorities have prevented their return by expropriating and demolishing homes in a policy that may amount to collective punishment.
Amnesty's Europe Director, John Dalhuisen, said that "a year after a round-the-clock curfew was imposed in Sur, thousands of people remain displaced from their homes, struggling to make ends meet and facing an uncertain future in an increasingly repressive atmosphere."
Turkish officials didn't immediately comment on the report.
Sur is a walled-off, historic district in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, which is widely seen by Turkey's Kurds as their regional capital.
It was one of the focal points of vast security operations and 24-hour curfews imposed this past year by authorities in predominantly Kurdish, urban centers of the southeast in a bid to flush out Kurdish fighters linked to an outlawed movement.
A cease-fire between the Turkish government and the banned Kurdistan Worker's Party, or PKK, collapsed in July 2015. As the conflict escalated, large sections of Sur, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, were placed under curfew in December 2015.
That restriction remains in place in six neighborhoods, formerly home to 24,000 people, despite the conclusion of clashes in March.
In the report, which was released to coincide with the anniversary of Sur's curfew, Amnesty slammed authorities for "devastating the lives of ordinary people under the pretext of security."
The rights group says it estimates more than 500,000 people have been displaced in east and southeast Turkey as a result of unlivable curfews and sweeping crackdowns which used a level of military force deemed disproportionate for the security threat posed by Kurdish militants.
PKK-linked and inspired militants, many of them youth, had dug trenches, raised barricades and booby-trapped areas in neighborhoods where they sought to claim autonomy, including in Sur. The European Union and the U.S., like Turkey, label the PKK a terrorist organization.
Amnesty noted that the destruction by shelling, demolition and expropriation of at least 60 percent of the homes in the Sur district has set the stage for a vague redevelopment project that very few former residents are likely to benefit from.
In February, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu famously vowed to rebuild the area in the likeness of Spain's Toledo. The Spanish city was once a center of learning and co-existence between the three main religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. A famous fortress there was badly damaged in the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War and was restored.
Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International's Turkey researcher, told The Associated Press that the unnecessary extension of the curfew in Sur and the authorities' failure to facilitate the return of residents suggests a "premeditated plan" to achieve security "through changing the structure and infrastructure of these areas."
Residents displaced from Sur and other areas have struggled to find alternative housing, livelihood and education for their children, according to the report, which drew on the testimony of 26 displaced families and a broader but unpublished survey conducted for the Diyarbakir municipality.
Displaced families have received insufficient compensation from the government for property damaged during security operations and inadequate information on how emergency expropriation measures affect their homes, limiting their ability to take legal action in time.
Amnesty underscores that the experience of Sur residents is one mirrored in other parts of the southeast that have also witnessed conflict, protracted curfews and mass displacement for more than a year.
The group stressed that a nationwide state of emergency imposed after the failed July 15 coup has hit the southeast particularly hard.
The prosecution of leading Kurdish politicians and lawyers coupled with the closure of Kurdish media outlets has left displaced families with few champions to fight their cause or sources of information. Local organizations providing services to the displaced have also been shut.
"The obligation of the state is to ensure that people have the means and ability to return to their houses, or failing that, their neighborhoods," Gardner said. "It looks increasingly unlikely that the vast majority of residents will be able to go back."