Was Ahmet Yildiz the victim of Turkey's first gay honour killing?

In a corner of Istanbul today, the man who might be described as Turkey's gay poster boy will be buried – a victim, his friends believe, of the country's deepening friction between an increasingly liberal society and its entrenched conservative traditions.

Ahmet Yildiz, 26, a physics student who represented his country at an international gay gathering in San Francisco last year, was shot leaving a cafe near the Bosphorus strait this week. Fatally wounded, the student tried to flee the attackers in his car, but lost control, crashed at the side of the road and died shortly afterwards in hospital. His friends believe Mr Yildiz was the victim of the country's first gay honour killing.

"He fell victim to a war between old mentalities and growing civil liberties," says Sedef Cakmak, a friend and a member of the gay rights lobby group Lambda. "I feel helpless: we are trying to raise awareness of gay rights in this country, but the more visible we become, the more we open ourselves up to this sort of attack."

Turkey was all but closed to the world until 1980 but its desire for European Union membership has imposed strains on a society formerly kept on a tight leash. As the notion of rights for minorities such as women and gays has blossomed, the country's civil society becomes more vibrant by the day. But the changes have brought a backlash from traditionalist circles wedded to the old regime.

Bungled efforts by a religious-minded government to loosen the grip of Turkey's authoritarian version of secularism have triggered a court case aimed at shutting the ruling party down, with a verdict expected within a month.

Against this backdrop, the issues of women's rights, sexuality and the place of religion in the public arena have been particularly contentious. Ahmet Yildiz's crime, his friends say, was to admit openly to his family that he was gay.

"From the day I met him, I never heard Ahmet have a friendly conversation with his parents," one close friend and near neighbour recounted. "They would argue constantly, mostly about where he was, who he was with, what he was doing."

The family pressure increased, the friend explained. "They wanted him to go back home, see a doctor who could cure him, and get married." Shortly after coming out this year, Mr Yildiz went to a prosecutor to complain that he was receiving death threats. The case was dropped. Five months later, he was dead. The police are now investigating his murder. For gay rights groups, the student's inability to get protection was a typical by-product of the indifference, if not hostility, with which a broad swathe of Turkish society views homosexuality. The military, for example, sees it as an "illness". Men applying for an exemption to obligatory military service on grounds of homosexuality must provide proof – either in the form of an anal examination, or photographs.

"The media ignores or laughs off violence against gays," says Buse Kilickaya, a member of the gay lobbying group Pink Life, adding that Ahmet Yildiz's death "risks being swept under the carpet and forgotten like other cases in the past". Turkey has a history of honour killings. A government survey earlier this year estimated that one person every week dies in Istanbul as a result of honour killings. It put the nationwide death toll at 220 in 2007. In the majority of cases, the victims are women, but Mr Yildiz's friends suspect he may be the first recorded victim of a homosexual honour killing.

"We've been trying to contact Ahmet's family since Wednesday, to get them to take responsibility for the funeral," one of the victim's friends said yesterday, standing outside the morgue where his body has been for three days. "There's no answer, and I don't think they are going to come." The refusal of families to bury their relatives is common after honour-related murders.

Mazhar Bagli, a Turkish sociologist who has interviewed 189 people convicted of honour killings, has never heard of a death revolving around homosexuality but has no doubt that it could be used as justification. "Honour killings cleanse illicit relationships. For women, that is a broad term. Men are allowed more sexual freedom, but homosexuality is still seen by some as beyond the pale."

While his death may be unique, Mr Yildiz is by no means the first victim of widespread homophobia. When an Istanbul court decided to close down the city's largest gay rights group late this May, commentators took the decision as evidence of a crackdown on the community spearheaded by Turkey's current religious-minded government. Lambda Istanbul had been taken to court by the Istanbul governor's office on the grounds that it was "against the law and morality".

However, many gay activists are reluctant to draw a connection with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), noting it was the first party in Turkey's history to send a deputy to attend a conference on gay rights. This year's Gay Pride parade in Istanbul was the largest ever, they also point out. Long active in more liberal parts of western Turkey, gay groups are even beginning to meet relatively openly in the conservative east of the country where Ahmet Yildiz came from.

But according to the former neighbour, the physics student's blank refusal to hide who he was in any way may have been too much for his family. "He could have hidden who he was, but he wanted to live honestly," the neighbour said. "When the death threats started, his boyfriend tried to persuade him to get out of Turkey. But he stayed. He was too brave. He was too open."

Killed by those they loved

So-called "honour killings" continue to be a grim reality wherever conservative social mores resist the rule of law.

In Turkey, a recent government study estimated that around 1,000 honour killings have been committed in the past five years. The victims are mostly young women, murdered by male relatives for transgressing chauvinistic social rules.

Women have been killed for having illicit affairs, talking to strangers, or even for being the victim of rape. Turkey's justice system has recently increased penalties for honour killings, and ended the practice of allowing murderers to claim family honour as an extenuating circumstance. However, getting a child relative to carry out the killing remains a horrifying way around the law.

The problem is not confined to Turkey. The UN estimates that 5,000 honour killings take place globally every year, from Brazil to Pakistan to Britain. Police estimate more than a dozen honour killings take place in the UK every year, such as the brutal rape and murder of 20-year-old Banaz Mahmod by her uncle and father in 2006, or the murder of Rukhsana Naz, strangled by her family because she wanted a divorce in 1999.

Honour killings have not so far really targeted gay men, although in 2006 a wave of anti-gay killings took place in Iraq, carried out by fanatical Islamist militias. A Jordanian man was shot and wounded by his brother in 2004, apparently for being gay.

Jeff Black

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