A Kurdish Mystery Just Got Weirder

A missing Kurdish politician turns up in Iraq, raising questions about what actually happened to him.


ISTANBUL — It was a case that stirred dark memories among Turkey’s Kurds: Hursit Kulter, a 33-year-old politician working for the Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP), vanished this summer under ominous circumstances.

Lawyers and rights groups feared that he had been forcibly disappeared by the Turkish state, as I reported in an article for Democracy Lab in July. On Friday morning, however, Kulter emerged alive and well in Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

His explanation — an unlikely tale of detention, miraculous escape, and months in hiding — was scant on details. Government officials and their supporters were quick to label his disappearance a propaganda stunt engineered by the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is engaged in a bitter insurgency against Turkish security forces in the country’s Kurdish-majority southeast. (The photo above shows ruined houses in Cizre, where Turkish forces concluded a military operation earlier this year.)

But many who had publicly demanded an investigation into Kulter’s case now felt duped. They — and I — looked at the facts known at the time and reasoned that Kulter was either dead or being held incommunicado. After all, why else wouldn’t he contact his worried family?

As it turned out, Kulter was — by his own admission — not in custody when I interviewed his brother, his lawyers, and others in early July. His version of the story, which he outlined in a press conference held in Kirkuk this morning, follows.

According to Kulter, he was detained on May 27 in his hometown of Sirnak by special police forces who were engaged in fierce clashes with PKK militants entrenched there. He was then held in a basement for 13 days. “They inflicted intense psychological and physical torture on me and constantly imposed pressure on me to serve as a spy,” Kulter said, according to a transcript of his statement by the Kurdish news agency ANF.

He added that the officers guarding him regularly mentioned that they would soon kill him. After being moved to a different floor of the building, Kulter said he managed to escape, though he provided no further details.

He claims that he then hid in Sirnak, which by this point was nearly deserted due to ongoing fighting, for about 40 days. After he came across other “resisters,” whose affiliation or identities he did not disclose, Kulter said he left the city and travelled with their help to Iraq’s Kurdistan region, a journey that reportedly took him two months.

According to this timeline he should have reached Iraq in mid- to late September. His only explanation for staying hidden for so long involved unspecified “security conditions.”

In May, the regional governor responsible for Sirnak denied that Kulter was in custody. Asked on Friday whether the Kurdish politician was detained for 13 days as he claimed, a presidential official sent me a link to the governor’s initial statement, indicating that they stood by his words.

On social media, both government supporters and critics questioned Kulter’s story: How did he escape? Who helped him flee Turkey? Had he been detained at all? His explanation was too vague to be satisfying.

In the end, two facts remain: Kulter disappeared in Sirnak, Turkey, on May 27, under suspicious circumstances. He reappeared on October 7 in Kirkuk, Iraq, to give a press conference.

Sirnak remains under military lockdown. Similar measures have been imposed on other cities and districts in Turkey’s southeastern region as violence surged, severely restricting access for independent media and human rights groups. The result is an environment where confusion, rumors, and propaganda reign.

In Turkey’s highly polarized media environment, the same event frequently produces two entirely different reports. A pro-Kurdish newspaper’s account of civilian killings may be headlined as a successful counter-terror operation in the pro-government press.

Kulter’s press conference followed the same path: The Kurdish media hailed his reappearance as a happy event and underlined the torture he described at the hands of the state. But pro-government journalists and officials cast the story as PKK propaganda, a made-up disappearance that never occurred.

“Our assessment is that the whole thing was a publicity stunt orchestrated by the PKK,” a government official told me, adding: “We hope this episode will raise questions about other false information that the group may have disseminated in the past.”

With peace talks suspended for the near future, the government and Turkey’s Kurdish movement are engaged in an intense war of words to discredit the other. Kulter’s case will provide ammunition to both.

Photo credit: CAGDAS ERDOGAN/Getty Images

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