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Thousands March in Turkish Teen's Funeral

  • Dorian Jones

People carry the coffin of Berkin Elvan, a Turkish teenager who was in a coma since being hit on the head by a tear gas canister fired by police during anti-government protests in the summer of 2013, during his funeral in Istanbul, Turkey, March 12, 2014

People carry the coffin of Berkin Elvan, a Turkish teenager who was in a coma since being hit on the head by a tear gas canister fired by police during anti-government protests in the summer of 2013, during his funeral in Istanbul, Turkey, March 12, 2014

People across Turkey are mourning 15-year-old Berkin Elvan, who died Tuesday after spending months in a coma after being struck by a police gas canister during last summer’s anti-government unrest.

Despite appeals for calm, violence broke out shortly after Elvan's burial in an Istanbul cemetery on Wednesday.

Amid chants of "Elvan is immortal!" armored police vans fired water cannons and gas canister to disperse thousands of protesters who attended the ceremony, which drew tens of thousands from across the city.

The eighth person to die from injuries sustained during last summer's anti-government protests, 15-year-old Elvan, his parents say, was struck in the head by a police gas canister while buying bread.

But observers say that because of his young age and the fact that he died after spending months in the hospital, Elvan has become a focal point of concerns over police tactics and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's tough stance toward the unrest.

Many who marched in the funeral procession chanted in unison, calling both the police and the prime minister murderers. Some protesters hurled stones at a ruling party building, smashing its windows.

As the cortege weaved through the city, people applauded from office windows as the predominantly young mass of marchers, comprising college students and young school children, passed by.

"He was innocent. He did not do anything wrong," said one student who withheld her name. "He was just out buying bread for his family and the police shot [him]. We all blame Erdogan for this."

Commemorations for Elvan unfolded in many of Turkey’s main cities, including the capital, Ankara, where police dispersed mourners with tear gas and, according to some unverified reports, rubber bullets. Similar clashes between police and people protesting Elvan's death occurred Tuesday night in several cities.

“Please be aware that we all in Turkey are mourning today," said Justice Minister Bekir Bozda on Wednesday. "We were plunged into deep sadness by his loss of life in such an incident. May he rest in peace."

While Erdogan has not commented on Elvan’s death, President Abdullah Gul appealed for calm and says he instructed police to act with restraint during Elvan’s funeral. In Istanbul, police appeared to heed calls for restraint only until the funeral concluded, when thousands began walking toward Taksim Square, the epicenter of last year’s unrest.

Demonstrations in Taksim Square have been banned since last year, but the latest clashes are likely to put the spotlight back on the government and police tactics.

Emma Sinclair Webb, senior Turkey researcher for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, says the Elvan case raises wider questions about police impunity.

"There really is no proper investigation into the circumstances surrounding Berkin’s death," she said. "Basically, it crystallizes the feeling that the state is fundamentally unaccountable when it comes to police violence. In a sense, Berkin’s case is like many other cases we have documented, where the investigation into the police conduct is absolutely absent."

Justice Minister Bozdag insists the investigation into Elvan’s death is ongoing, but with the government still mired in allegations of graft and authoritarian rule, observers warn of further civil unrest.

With Erdogan accusing demonstrators of being part of an international conspiracy against him, a change in police tactics is not expected.

On the campaign trail ahead of March 30 municipal elections, Erdogan recently addressed a rally in the southeastern city of Siirt but failed to mention the teenager's death in a lengthy speech.

The embattled prime minister has acknowledged the polls will act as a referendum on his rule.

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