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Death of Young Kurdish Man Sparks Hate Crime Debate in Turkey

Death of Young Kurdish Man Sparks Hate Crime Debate in Turkey
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Death of Young Kurdish Man Sparks Hate Crime Debate in Turkey

The death of a young Kurdish man in Turkey's capital Ankara for allegedly listening to Kurdish music has fanned outrage in the country, producing calls for the government to address ethnically-based hate crimes.

Baris Cakan, 20, was fatally stabbed in the Etimesgut neighborhood park of Ankara on May 31. His death soon fueled fury in Turkey after his family first announced he was killed by three nationalist Turks over listening to Kurdish music.

The Cakans later came out saying they were not sure if the killing was over his ethnic identity. Kurdish officials claim the family could have been pressured by authorities into changing their statement.

"There are claims about listening to music but I do not know," Fatih Cakan, the victim's brother, told VOA. He said Cakan was caught in a quarrel with the three men last Sunday shortly after leaving his home at 8:30 p.m. to meet his friend and perform evening prayer.

"There are many different claims and discourses. Everybody says something else. But I do not know because I was not there during the incident," he added.

A day following the incident, Ankara governor's office in a press statement said the three suspects were in custody and its investigations showed the death was not a hate crime. Noting that "reflecting the incident in a different way is not well-intentioned," the office said Cakan and his friend got into a brawl after Cakan was asked by the three suspects to turn down their music during adhan, the evening call for prayer.

FILE - Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu speaks during a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey, Aug. 21, 2019.
FILE - Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu speaks during a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey, Aug. 21, 2019.

Turkey's interior ministry has accused those calling the death a hate crime as "provocateurs," with Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, in an interview with the daily newspaper Hurriyet last Wednesday, saying that "it is our responsibility to fight against provocations and to inform our citizens correctly, as it is to fight against terrorism, crime, and criminals."

However, some Kurdish officials and activists say they suspect Cakan's family has been subjected to pressure by the government into reversing their previous position.

Huseyin Kacmaz, the Sirnak deputy for the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), told VOA that several of his party members after their contact with the family have confirmed that the young man was killed over playing Kurdish music.

"We believe that after the incident went viral and sparked outrage on social media, the government exerted enormous pressure on the family and relatives," Kacmaz said.

VOA was unable to reach the Turkish Interior Ministry for a comment on these allegations.

The Ankara police department on Saturday announced taking legal action against "unfounded and misleading" social media posts which, it said, were intervening in the investigation into the death.

"Legal proceedings for the crime of public enmity were initiated by the prosecutor's office against thirty-six people who were found to be trying to gain political and ideological interest by exploiting the killing of Baris Cakan," the statement said.

Issue of hate crimes

This is not the first time that allegations of a possible hate crime stirred controversy.

According to the Ankara-based Human Rights Association, at least 21 people were subjected to minority hate crimes in 2019.

"What we anticipate is that Baris Cakan has fallen victim to a hate murder," the watchdog's chief, Ozturk Turkdogan, told VOA.

"Those who attacked Baris Cakan did not tolerate him and attacked him with hatred because of his feature. This is either his ethnic origins, or the language he speaks of, or his belief, as in the discussion of adhan. For us, this is also a hate murder," Turkdogan said.

Condolence visits by officials to the family, he added, shows the government is intent on rejecting violence based on ethnic origin.

Kurds constitute around 20% of Turkey's population of 83 million. Many Kurdish citizens allegedly have been targeted in public for speaking their native language.

The government, which recognizes Turkish as the state's sole official language, says Kurdish cannot be used in public education but is allowed in private schools and in public.

VOA's Kurdish service's Ozlem Yasak and Turkish service contributed to this story.