Turkey: Buried Alive for Her Family’s Honor

Medine Memi was 16 years when a family council convicted her to death in November 2009. They dug a two meter deep hole under the chicken coop at their house and forced Medine, her hands tied on her back, to sit in it. Then they buried her alive, throwing one spadeful of earth after the other down on her, till she was completely covered and the hole filled. Medine was not drugged, she died in full consciousness. She tried to scream and struggled for air. Soil filled her mouth, entered her windpipe, her gullet, her lungs and her stomach. She died a slow and gruesome death.

There is nothing left in memory of Medine’s short life, not even a photograph of hers existence. It is as if she never lived. One of ten children, she was born in Kahata in the province Adiyaman in south east Turkey and never left this place. She was not allowed to go to school. Her father and grandfather used to brutally beat her up when they suspected her to talk to village boys of her age. During her last weeks, Medine feared for her life. She sought help in the police station. She tried to lodge a complaint against father and grandfather. She begged for protection and asylum. But she was forced to go back to her tormentors. This repeated three times; after that she was not seen again. In December, a neighbor got suspicious. The authorities opened the newly cemented place under the chicken coop and found Medine’s body. They arrested her father and grandfather, but did not charge them so far.

The gruesome murder of Medine is no single case. 'Honor killings' have reached record levels in Turkey. Official government figures confirm more than 200 cases every year, half of all murders committed in the country. The estimates of human rights groups are far higher. Investigations are generally difficult; many of these murders remain family secrets. In the Kurdish dominated south east of Turkey, the region of Medine’s home province Adiyaman, the concentration of ‘honor killings’ is the highest. Decades back, Adiyaman has been a stronghold of the Islamic fundamentalist Naksibendi sect that was banned in 1925 by the founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk, but seems to gain new ground in recent years.

In 2005, with the reform of the Turkish Penal Code, life sentences for ‘honor killers’ have become mandatory. Earlier they often escaped with reduced sentences, if any, claiming they have been “provoked”. Even now, many ‘honor killers’ benefit from improper investigations and leniency of the authorities, as many police officers, prosecutors and even judges share their views. Even in prison, they still use to enjoy high respect and privileges. As a strategy, many family councils order the youngest male member to commit the murder, taking advantage of juvenile law. The government’s recent efforts to take harder legal action have resulted in a new twist: while the number of ‘honor killings’ seems to go down, a wave of ‘honor suicides’ can be observed. To escape legal prosecution, families force their victims to kill themselves.

‘Honor killings’ are committed in many countries around the world. According to UN estimates, there are more than 5000 cases every year. But that may be only the tip of the iceberg. While the majority of them seems to have a fundamentalist Islamic background, similar barbaric traditions are active among Hindus, Sikhs and Christians (for example in Sicily).