Tens of thousands mourn death, protest against Turkish government

Tens of thousands chant anti-government slogans as they march through Istanbul after death of teenager injured in street protests last year

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 March, 2014, 1:40am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 March, 2014, 4:22am

Tens of thousands of mourners chanting anti-government slogans marched through central Istanbul yesterday for the funeral of a teenager wounded in street protests last summer whose death has sparked renewed unrest across Turkey.

Riot police fired water cannon and tear gas at protests in several cities after Berkin Elvan's death on Tuesday, adding to pre-election woes for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan as he battles a corruption scandal that has become one of the biggest challenges of his decade in power.

Crowds chanting "Tayyip! Killer!" and "Everywhere is Berkin, everywhere is resistance" held up photos of Elvan outside a cemevi, an Alevi place of worship, in Istanbul's working class Okmeydani district, from where his coffin, draped in red and covered in flowers, was carried through the streets for burial.

Alevis are a religious minority in mainly Sunni Muslim Turkey who espouse a liberal version of Islam and have often been at odds with Erdogan's Islamist-rooted government.

Police in the capital Ankara fired tear gas to disperse several thousand protesters in the central Kizilay square, and there were also clashes in the poor Alevi neighbourhood of Tuzlucayir across the city.

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

Referring to last summer's protests, he accused a coalition of "anarchists, terrorists and vandals" as well as the opposition and followers of an influential US-based Islamic cleric of stoking trouble on the streets to undermine him.

"Don't worry we will hold them to account. You will hold them to account at the ballot box on March 30," he thundered.

Anger at the perceived growing authoritarianism of Erdogan motivated many attending the funeral procession in Istanbul.

"The lack of compassion, the polarising attitude of the prime minister and the fact that he behaves like an autocrat is what brought us here," said Emre, 32, marching with his father-in-law.

The funeral ceremony was broadcast live on major television news channels, some of which were criticised for their scant coverage of last June's unrest.

Elvan, then aged 14, got caught up in street battles in Istanbul between police and protesters on June 16 while going to buy bread for his family. He became a rallying point for government opponents, who held vigils at the Istanbul hospital where he lay in intensive care from a head trauma believed to have been caused by a police tear gas canister.

His death has sparked the most extensive street protests since last June, with skirmishes on Tuesday in cities including Mersin on the Mediterranean coast, Samsun on the Black Sea and the southern city of Adana, as well as Istanbul and Ankara.

Erdogan has yet to comment on Elvan's death. He dismissed last summer's protesters as riff-raff, and has cast both those weeks of unrest and the corruption scandal which erupted in December as part of an orchestrated campaign to undermine him.

Istanbul and Ankara have both seen protests in recent weeks against what demonstrators regard as Erdogan's authoritarian reaction to the graft affair, which has included new laws tightening internet controls and handing government greater influence over the appointment of judges and prosecutors.

Opinion polls suggest that while support for Erdogan's AK Party may have slipped, it remains comfortably ahead of its rivals, with Erdogan's supporters pointing to a sharp rise in living standards during his 11-year tenure.