In Turkey, teen's funeral becomes latest spark for antigovernment protests

The death of a teenager injured by Turkey's police during last May's antigovernment protests has reignited unrest only weeks ahead of nationwide elections. 

Emrah Gurel/AP
People follow the coffin of Berkin Elvan, a Turkish teenager who was in a coma after being hit in the head by a tear gas canister fired by police during the summer's anti-government protests, during his funeral in Istanbul, Turkey, March 12.

Unrest erupted in Turkish cities today on a scale not seen since last summer's demonstrations. In Istanbul, tens of thousands marched for the funeral of a boy who died after being hit by a police tear gas canister.

Berkin Elvan, 15, succumbed to his injuries yesterday morning after 269 days in a coma. His death has become a rallying cry for Turks who say the police are not being held accountable for using excessive force against demonstrators. Crowds chanted “Killer Tayyip Erdogan,” referring to the prime minister; “Government Resign;” and “Berkin is immortal.”

Protests took place in 36 cities around the country, with police responding with tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannon. In Istanbul, where huge crowds joined the boy’s funeral cortege, what began as a peaceful procession ended with clashes as police sought to prevent marchers from reaching the center of the city.

Anger at the death of Berkin, whose case has never been investigated, was mainly directed at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The boy’s mother, Gulsum Elvan, said yesterday that he was responsible for her son’s death. Elvan was 14 when he was wounded during protests that erupted last May in opposition to a government plan to build a shopping center over a park in central Istanbul.

He is the eighth person to die as a result of the unrest – which lasted for three weeks and has been followed by smaller sporadic protests – and the fourth to die as a direct result of police actions.

Turkey’s Medical Association said some 8,000 people were injured, and at least 11 lost eyes due to tear gas canisters and rubber bullets.

At the time Prime Minister Erdogan defended the police response, calling the officers "heroes" and denouncing the demonstrators as "vandals."

Ms. Elvan's family insists the boy left the house the day he was killed to buy bread, not protest. Today, many people in Istanbul tied loaves of bread to their front doors in a sign of solidarity.

“I’m angry with the government because a child died and they have done nothing to find the murderers,” says Tolga Yucel, a masters student in philosophy who was at the funeral. “He was killed by the police, but there’s no court case going on, no legal procedure, nothing.”

Political pawn?

Fethullah Gulen, an influential imam living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania who has emerged as Erdogan’s main antagonist in recent weeks, was among many Turkish public figures and politicians to offer condolences. He indirectly blamed the boy’s death on Erdogan’s aggressive rhetoric against last summer’s antigovernment protesters.

“Instead of taking steps to defuse the events sparked by an obsession to build a shopping centre polarizing language was used to incite them further, and this has caused the death of a number of our youth,” Mr. Gulen said in a statement.

Erdogan has yet to comment on Berkin's death or the latest unrest. Erdogan accuses Gulen of being the driving force behind a graft investigation and a series of leaked phone calls that have purported to expose massive corruption within the government.

One recent tape, decried as fake by the prime minister, appeared to show Erdogan discussing with his son, Bilal, how to hide tens of millions of dollars in cash from a police investigator.

"Their children steal millions and our children are killed when they go to buy bread," read a statement from DISK, a trade union with 300,000 members, one of several that have called for mass protests in response to Berkin’s death.

Still popular 

Despite the current crises facing his government, Erdogan’s party retains a commanding lead in opinion polls on nationwide municipal elections at the end of this month. 

Many Turks credit him with a decade of political stability and strong growth that has seen Turkey emerge as a major regional power. They also appreciate his easing of religious restrictions imposed by the country’s former secularist governments.

Others, however, accuse Erdogan of swerving towards authoritarianism and threatening secular lifestyles. In recent weeks he has passed a series of laws restricting Internet freedom, curbing judicial independence, and granting sweeping new powers to the domestic intelligence agency.

On the streets today, all these issues appeared to catalyze public anger.

“For a long time it looked as if the country was becoming more democratic and we were going towards the European Union,” said Mr. Yucel. “But now we see this wasn’t the case. The government was only pretending to democratize.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.