Today was a remarkable day in Turkey, this was a case which has faced hurdles every step of the way.
As I sat in a packed courtroom in the city of Kayseri, ready for the first hearing in the case against four police officers and four civilians accused of the killing of a protester this summer, it hit me how extraordinary it is that this trial is even taking place.
Ali Ismail Korkmaz, a 19-year-old student, was severely beaten on the night of 2 June 2013. During the Gezi Park protests, thousands of demonstrators were injured by police but only a handful of officers have so far faced the courts.
Today’s trial is taking place despite the fact that police officers tried to cover up their actions and authorities blocked any chances of effective investigations.
The cover up started on the night of the killing.
Evidence suggests that the four police officers accused – all members of an anti-terrorism branch who were not wearing uniform or any signs to identify them – were directing four armed civilians.
These tactics were seen elsewhere in Turkey and make it very difficult for those responsible to be identified.
Following the attack, the Governor of Eskisehir made statements to the press that police were not involved in the incident and that Ali Ismail Korkmaz had been beaten up “by his friends”. Footage from a CCTV camera was deleted in the days following the incident.
Later the footage was recovered by experts from the gendarmerie acting on the request of the prosecutor. It is now one of the key pieces of the prosecution’s evidence.
Despite the hurdles, the state prosecutor opened the case on 9 September. However, the Governor of Eskisehir said there would be security concerns if the trial was to take place in the city. On 12 November the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that the case should be heard in another central Anatolian city, Kayseri.
The day didn’t start well. Morning news reported that the Governor of Kayseri had forbidden any demonstrations related to the trial in the city. Two thousand riot police had been sent, including reinforcements from neighbouring cities. Buses carrying demonstrators to the city were stopped by police.
As we waited for the hearing to begin, the police closed the surrounding streets and a tense atmosphere prevailed. We managed to get past the first security barrier and approached the courthouse. Police officers guarding the door refused to let us in. They needed to ask the presiding judge for permission. We told them it was a public hearing and said we were Amnesty International’s observers. Eventually, we were allowed in.
Inside the courthouse it was chaotic as dozens of lawyers representing the Korkmaz family competed for space with journalists, relatives and supporters in the cramped courtroom.
The microphone system didn’t work and people at the back could not hear. Still more were left outside as all the standing room was taken.
The hearing started with statements from the family lawyers. Next the defendants confirmed their names and details. Frustration turned into anger as a scuffle between lawyers and a man in plain clothes who claimed to be from the gendarmerie.
“He’s got a gun” shouted one of the lawyers and two men were bundled out of the courthouse into the arms of the police. Confusion reigned.
After a break the microphones were fixed and the prosecutor read the indictment to the court, it detailed the head injuries sustained by Ali Ismail Korkmaz and the cerebral haemorrhage that caused his death.
He read Ali’s statement to the police the day after the attack “Five or six people came up to me, they beat me with clubs on my head, back, shoulder and legs. I fell to the ground…Yesterday I didn’t have difficulty in speaking but today I can’t remember. One of my teeth is loose because of the incident. My head hurts, I have difficulty speaking. I don’t know who beat me or why. They were wearing civilian clothes. I want to make a complaint.”
After making the statement Ali was admitted to hospital, where he fell into a coma. He died on 10 July 2013.
The eight defendants accused of taking part in the assault have been charged with offences ranging from intentional killing (which carries a life sentence) to assisting the attack.
After the indictment was read the court broke for lunch in what is likely to be a protracted trial, with many months before an initial verdict and possibly years before a final judgment. As the courtroom emptied, sounds of a demonstration outside could be heard from the courthouse. Riot police armed with tear gas filed-off in its direction.