Mother of teenager killed in Gezi protests calls for reduced police powers

Gülsüm Elvan, the mother of 14-year-old Berkin Elvan who was killed by a gas canister during Turkey’s massive anti-government protests in 2013, said the extensive powers granted to the police should be reined in.

“Children are killed on the streets in Turkey,” Elvan told Evrensel newspaper, referring to both her son and Ali el Hemdan, an 18-year-old Syrian refugee who was fatally shot by a police officer in April. “As long as the police have these powers, many children will die.”

Turkey has been extending powers to the security forces since the amendment of the Police Powers and Duties Act (PVSK) in 2007 as part of extensive reforms required for the country’s bid for membership of the European Union.

Since 2013, when both the Gezi protests and a corruption probe that implicated top government officials took place, Turkey’s security forces have been given more authority and more weapons as concerns over impunity has grown. After the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, concerns peaked as a state of emergency decree lifted criminal liability for public servants.

Police violence had been one of the major reasons behind the spread of the Gezi protests, which evolved from a small demonstration against the redevelopment of its namesake park in central Istanbul to massive anti-government protests throughout the country attended by an estimated four million people.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was Turkey’s prime minister at the time, maintains that the protests were an attempt to overthrow his government, and has called them a “civilian coup attempt” on many occasions.

Days before the seventh anniversary of the protests, Erdoğan said protesters had used firearms against the police. No such charges have been brought, but one police officer has been convicted of manslaughter over the fatal shooting of protester Ethem Sarısülük.

A total of 12 people died and thousands were injured over the summer as protests continued, where the police deployed excessive tear gas and heavy-handed riot control methods against the largely peaceful protesters. One of them was Berkin Elvan, who was hit on the head by a gas canister as he left his family home to buy bread during a protest in his neighbourhood in June.

Elvan remained in a coma for 269 days, and passed away in March 2014. Thousands of mourners were subjected to tear gas, kettling and beating by the police during his funeral.

One officer, Fatih Dalgalı, was charged with first degree murder after the initial investigation, which continued for over three years. He was never arrested and he remained in the police force, albeit in a different province. An expert report said evidence to determine Dalgalı’s guilt was inconclusive, and found the teenager to be at partial fault for not heeding his own safety during a demonstration, which it said was illegal.

“Apologies to actors, but what was put in front of us was a strange play. Not a comedy, though,” Gülsüm Elvan told Evrensel. “In every hearing, we were tortured. They repeatedly showed us videos of our child getting shot.”

Hearings were postponed twice due to Turkey’s measures against the coronavirus pandemic since March, and the next one will be held in September.

“Lawlessness has become more violent since Gezi,” Berkin’s father Sami Elvan told Evrensel. “We lost our child but the fight for justice continues.”

One police officer involved in the death of Abdullah Cömert, a Gezi protester who was killed by a gas canister shot from an armoured vehicle, was sentenced to six years but has since been released as part of Turkey’s recent prison reforms.

Two officers were acquitted in the case of Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, another protester who was hit by a police car during a demonstration, and no charges have been brought against any officers regarding the death of Ahmet Atakan, who fell off a roof when he was hit by a gas canister during a protest.

One of the officers involved in the death of 19-year-old Ali İsmail Korkmaz, who died after being severely beaten by a group of civilians and police officers, was charged with abusing his authority as a public servant and was initially sentenced to nine months in prison. This verdict was later overturned by a higher court. Another police officer was sentenced to 13 years in prison, but was released by a state of emergency decree in 2016.

“During our fight for justice, we faced a trial that sought impunity and to clear the murderers,” Korkmaz’s brother Gürkan Korkmaz told Evrensel. “Murderers were given meagre sentences, and have since been freed.”