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When a foreign military shoots a U.S. human rights defender shouldn’t the U.S. investigate?

As a teenager, Furkan Do?an would tell his parents that he wanted to bring toys, books, and food to the children of Gaza. Described by his father as a young man with a huge heart, Furkan was deeply troubled by the humanitarian situation faced by Palestinians living in Gaza due to the Israeli blockade, a situation the United Nations Relief Works Agency has described as “a crisis that transcends the humanitarian sphere.”  After graduating from high school, in 2010, Furkan joined the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, an international effort by activists who organized six ships, carrying more than 700 civilians from almost 40 countries, to sail towards Gaza to break the siege and deliver humanitarian supplies.

Three years ago, in the early hours of May 31, 2010, Israeli forces boarded the ship Furkan was on, the Mavi Marmara, while it was in international waters.   Commandos opened fire on the unarmed civilians  aboard. According to an investigation by the United Nations Human Rights Council:

“[Furkan Do?an was] filming with a small video camera when he was first hit with live fire. It appears that he was lying on the deck in a conscious, or semi-conscious, state for some time. In total Furkan received five bullet wounds . . . All of the entry wounds were on the back of his body, except for the face wound which entered to the right of his nose. According to forensic analysis, tattooing around the wound in his face indicates that the shot was delivered at point blank range.”

Eight other people on the Mavi Marmara, all Turkish citizens,  were also killed. Many others, on the Mavi Marmara and other ships, were injured, among them other U.S. citizens. Passengers were detained and had their property confiscated.

Furkan’s parents had been closely following the progress of the flotilla.  When they heard about the attack, Furkan’s father, Professor Ahmet Do?an, made numerous urgent calls to U.S. officials asking them to find the whereabouts of his son.  Despite Professor Do?an’s  repeated inquiries , State Department and Department of Defense documents reveal that U.S. officials did not become aware of Furkan’s death until June 2, 2010, when the Turkish press reported it.  The U.S. officials’ first response was not to call Professor Do?an, but to await confirmation from the Israeli government.

Many U.S. citizens take for granted that if they are wounded or worse by another government, the  U.S. will, at the very least, press for an independent, credible investigation. Under the international human rights system, governments are responsible for the protection of human rights defenders, and the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders has concluded that, “[f]ighting impunity for violations committed against defenders is crucial in order to enable defenders to work in a safe and conducive environment.”

But instead of taking decisive action to get to the bottom of the attack against a flotilla of human rights defenders in international waters and ensure accountability, the U.S. showed an alarming amount of deference to Israel and tried to undermine international efforts to investigate the incident.  Records recently released, as a result of the Center for Constitutional Rights’ (CCR) Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) efforts , show that the U.S. closely followed Israel’s lead in responding to the attack. For example, in July 2010, Matthew Andris, of the Bureau of International Organization Affairs at the U.S. State Department asked the U.S. staff to the Human Rights Council (UN HRC) in Geneva to, “Please approach [Israeli] Ambassador Yaar to find out if he has views on the currently proposed flotilla committee and whether he prefers that the U.S. engage or hang back on this?  There was a push in the room to engage (if its [sic] not too late) but we don’t want to unknowingly step on Israel’s toes.”

Likewise, an August 2010 State Department cable noted that the U.S. Mission to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva “explored ways to ‘turn off’ the [HRC] flotilla fact finding mission,” and that “we very strongly favor having this fact finding mission (FFM) fall away.”  The U.S. Mission sought guidance on “whether and how the United States should seek to shape the outcome.”

In the end, the HRC investigation did not “fall away.” It concluded that “Israeli forces carried out extra-legal, arbitrary and summary executions prohibited by international human rights law” against Furkan and at least five others. The U.S. opposed the September 2010 HRC resolution welcoming the fact finding mission’s report. According to FOIA documents Israel had requested the United States’ help in keeping the Human Rights Council’s flotilla inquiry “contained to Geneva and out of New York.”

Instead of supporting an independent international investigation, the U.S. backed Israel’s internal inquiry, known as the Turkel Committee, which exonerated all of the Israeli soldiers involved in the attack and concluded that all of their actions were legal.  The U.S. also backed the UN Secretary General’s inquiry, which relied on the Israeli inquiry (as well as a Turkish government inquiry) and negotiations with Israel and Turkey in reaching its conclusions.

Time for an Apology and a Credible Investigation

Turkey has long demanded an apology and compensation from Israel over the Mavi Marmara attack.  It even broke off diplomatic relations with Israel Ironically, even though the U.S. still has not publicly called upon Israel to apologize for the U.S. citizen who died in the attack or pursued accountability for his killing, President Obama brokered an apology from Israel to Turkey for “any mistakes that might have led to the loss of life or injury” on board the flotilla.  Why has the U.S. never pushed for an apology for the killing of Furkan, the seizure of a U.S.-flagged ship in international waters, and the injuries and mistreatment of other U.S. citizens?

Furkan’s family still wants an apology. Just two weeks ago, Furkan’s father traveled to the U.S. with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to deliver a letter to Obama asking for the U.S. to publicly acknowledge that Israeli forces killed his son and to, finally, start an investigation. During this trip, Erdogan held a press conference with Obama where he mentioned the attack against the Mavi Marmara as an “important issue, which is very important for regional peace” and mentioned that Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American citizen were killed. As you can see in the video, at minute 12:25, Obama looked away during this mention.

On this third anniversary of the attack, CCR, U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and Roots Action have launched a petition to the White House joining with Furkan’s family to press for an apology and an investigation.

Disturbing Pattern

This killing of a U.S. human rights defender by Israel’s military is not an isolated incident. On March 16, 2003 in the Gaza Strip, a bulldozer operated by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) crushed and killed Rachel Corrie, 23, of Olympia, WA. The U.S. government never investigated Rachel Corrie’s killing. It also filed a brief asking a U.S. court to dismiss a case brought by CCR on behalf of the Corrie family and Palestinian families against Caterpillar, Inc. for aiding and abetting war crimes and other serious human rights violations.  Caterpillar provided bulldozers to the IDF knowing they would be used to unlawfully demolish homes in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, like the home Corrie was defending when she was crushed to death.   IDF forces have also attacked U.S. human rights defenders with live ammunition and tear gas canisters in recent years causing injuries such as loss of eye, fractured skulls and other debilitating wounds.  The wounded include Brian Avery, Tristan Anderson, Emily Henochowicz, Christopher Whitman, and Eric Hawanith. Despite this, the United States has yet to condemn Israeli violence against human rights defenders.  Until it does, and until Israel is held accountable for these violations, there will be nothing to discourage future violence by the IDF against human rights defenders.

Laura Raymond is Advocacy Program Manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Follow her on Twitter @laurajraymond

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Laura Raymond

Laura Raymond