Can Turkey open a fresh chapter following the death of Berkin Elvan?
Yesterday’s funeral of Berkin Elvan, the 15-year-old boy who died as a result of injuries sustained at a Gezi Park demonstration in Istanbul last summer, was one of the largest funeral processions in Turkey’s history.
His death, following 269 days spent fighting for his life in a coma, brought an unprecedented number of people onto Istanbul’s streets to join the funeral procession – estimated at close to a million. It was a massive outpouring of anger about police violence, impunity and a government seen to protect the perpetrators and condone their violence.
All the evidence suggests that Berkin died because of injuries he sustained last 16 June, when he was hit at close range by a tear gas canister fired by police. He was close to his house and had apparently gone out to buy a loaf of bread. People in Turkey are incensed that taking to the streets as a peaceful demonstrator, or as a bystander, could – and still can – cost you your life at the hands of the police.
However, all the signals are that the government will ignore this groundswell of discontent and continue with their policy of repressing protests. Moments after Berkin Elvan was buried, police again used tear gas and water cannon against peaceful crowds near the funeral gathering on the road to Taksim. Clashes between police and demonstrators continued throughout the night, in Istanbul and in cities across Turkey.
By morning, two people had died at the scene of demonstrations. One person was shot in Istanbul, in a clash not thought to involve the police. A police officer in the eastern city of Tunceli/Dersim died following a heart attack. Initial reports suggested that large amounts of tear gas used against protesters may have prompted his heart attack. Scores of injuries were reported.
During the nine months that have passed since Berkin Elvan was hit by a tear gas canister, the Turkish authorities have done very little to end police violence or deliver justice for past abuses.
In failures typical of investigations into police violence in Turkey, the police officers responsible for firing tear gas at Berkin Elvan have not been identified. No CCTV footage of the incident has been found. A single prosecutor was tasked with investigating all the hundreds of complaints into police violence that took place last summer in Istanbul. Clearly, this is not the kind of effective investigation that millions of people around Turkey and elsewhere have been calling for.
In all of Turkey, only two prosecutions have been brought following last summer’s police violence. And even those came only after tremendous efforts by the families of the victims and public pressure, including from Amnesty International.
Every day that passes without justice for Berkin Elvan and countless other victims of police violence will sow further dissent. The government should learn this lesson before it is too late.