Ozan Kose / AFP / Getty Images

Killing of prominent pro-Kurdish lawyer sparks protests in Turkey

Tahir Elci, a human rights defender, had faced a criminal charge for speaking in defense of Kurdish rebels

A prominent lawyer and human rights defender, who faced a criminal charge for speaking in defense of Kurdish rebels, was killed Saturday in an attack in southeast Turkey in which a police officer also died, officials said.

Tahir Elci was shot while he and other lawyers were making a press statement. Two policemen and a journalist were also injured.

It wasn't immediately clear who was behind the attack, and there were conflicting reports about what led to it.

The pro-Kurdish HDP Party called the killing of Tahir Elci a "planned assassination" and urged people to protest. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said it was unclear whether Elci was caught in crossfire or assassinated.

Hours later, police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse hundreds of people marching in Istanbul to protest the killing. The marchers chanted: "Shoulder to shoulder against fascism," and "Tahir Elci is immortal." In Diyarbakir, police used pressurized water against a group of protesters who hurled rocks and firecrackers. 

Interior Minister Efkan Ala and other officials said the assault was against police officers, and that Elci died in an ensuing clash. However, the Diyarbakir Bar Association said the lawyer, who was Kurdish, was the target of the attack.

Elci, 49, was the head of the bar association in the mainly Kurdish city and a human rights activist.

He was briefly detained and questioned last month for saying during a live news program that the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, is not a terrorist organization. Soon after, he was charged with making propaganda and was facing more than seven years in prison.

Turkey has stepped up attacks against the PKK in recent months. The PKK has been fighting for autonomy in southeastern Turkey since 1984.

Ala said the attack began with two people firing at police from an area some 109 yards away from where Elci was speaking. A policeman died in that attack. Ala said Elci died soon after in a clash between the police and assailants.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spoke of two possible scenarios.

"One possibility is that after this terror attack, the assailants assassinated Mr. Elci," Davutoglu said. "A second possibility is that ... Elci got caught in the crossfire."

Davutoglu vowed to find the culprits through a "transparent" investigation and promised no cover-up.

A government official said four inspectors have been assigned to investigate the case, adding that the government was "determined to shed light" on the attack.

He said authorities believe that Elci was caught in the crossfire, but were not ruling out "the possibility that a third party directly targeted him." The official cannot be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

Elci had said through his Twitter account that he had received death threats because of his televised comments in which he defended the rebels.

Authorities declared a curfew in the Sur neighborhood where the attack occurred— a scene of frequent clashes between security forces and Kurdish youths.

At the time of the attack, Elci and other lawyers were making a statement about the destruction caused to a historic mosque by the clashes in Sur. Elci had strongly advocated an end to the renewed violence between the PKK and security forces.

The U.S. Embassy expressed shock over Elci's death, calling him a "courageous defender of human rights."

"Our condolences go to his family, that of the policeman killed and to all of Turkey. A terrible loss," the embassy said on Twitter.

Elci was the lawyer for Mohammed Rasool, a journalist who has worked for The Associated Press and other media organizations. Rasool was arrested in August in Diyarbakir while reporting for Vice News.

Wire services 

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