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Turkish forces' tactics under scrutiny as protest toll rises

Death of 19-year-old university student comes amid allegations of harassment of witnesses to last month's police crackdown on protesters and of families of those affected by the violence. Justin Vela reports from Istanbul

ISTANBUL // The death toll from Turkey's anti-government protests rose to five yesterday, raising fresh questions about the tactics of the security forces.

The death of Ali Ismail Korkmaz, a 19-year-old university student, came amid allegations of harassment of witnesses to last month's police crackdown on protesters and of families of those affected by the violence.

Tens of thousands took to the streets in June after the police's heavy-handed response to a rally against government plans to develop Gezi Park in Istanbul.

The police brutality sparked countrywide demonstrations as Turks took to the streets to oppose what they say is prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian government.

Local media and a rights group said that Korkmaz died yesterday after being attacked by unknown assailants while fleeing police firing tear gas in the central Anatolian city of Eskisehir on June 2.

While the circumstances of his and the other deaths are not yet clear, they highlight the harsh tactics used by Turkish security forces on those opposed to the government, and the impunity with which they are carried out.

"The police as the representative of the state can kill you," said Zozan Pehlivan, a 31-year-old student and anti-government demonstrator in Istanbul. "It doesn't matter what you protest … the police can kill you and nothing will happen."

In addition to Korkmaz, protester Mehmet Ayvalitas was hit by a car that drove into a crowd of demonstrators in Istanbul. Abdullah Comert was killed after being hit by a police tear-gas canister in Antakya, a city in the south of the country. In Ankara, Ethem Sarisuluk, 26, was shot in the head by a pistol-wielding police officer.

A police officer in the southern city of Adana also died after falling off a bridge while chasing protesters.

But Sarisuluk's death in particular has drawn the ire of those opposed to the government. In a video of the killing on June 1, a lone police officer fires his pistol in the direction of the demonstrators. One of the nine millimeter bullets hits Sarisuluk in the head and he collapses.

Onur Kaya, a 35-year-old protester from Istanbul, said that even if the officer had panicked, he should not have fired his weapon. Mr Kaya said that the killings made him more intent on protesting.

"It is very difficult to tell if [the shooting] is intentional or not, but he definitely committed a crime, it is for sure a misconduct and abuse of power."

Despite the evidence presented by the video, it took three weeks for the police officer who shot Sarisuluk to appear in court, according to Kazim Bayraktar, a lawyer from the Ankara Bar Association who is advising the family.

The court ruled that the officer acted in self-defence because the protesters were throwing rocks at him.

"It shows that the political force in the country is protecting the police," Mr Bayraktar said. He said that Sarisuluk and other protesters threw rocks at the officer because he was kicking a demonstrator.

Sarisuluk's brother, Mustafa, said that that several witnesses to the killing were now in jail. They face charges that mean, "trouble for years to come", he said.

Mustafa added that his family had been under pressure from the government to remain quiet about Sarisuluk's death. They have received threatening phone calls and are being watched by plain-clothed police, he said.

The family is planning to pursue the case in the European Court of Human Rights.

In a similar example of disproportionate use of force by Turkey's security forces, an 18-year-old Kurdish man, Medeni Yildirim, was killed on June 28 by gendarmerie while protesting against the renovation of a gendarmerie outpost in Lice, a district in the south-east province of Diyarbakir.

According to Serdar Celebi of Turkey's Human Rights Association, gendarmerie fired from inside the outpost at the unarmed demonstrators.

"No one warned anyone," Mr Celebi said, disputing a government claim that security forces tried to disperse the demonstrators using non-lethal means.

"They were not gassed or pepper-sprayed. They went right for the guns."

Anger at Yildirim's raises the possibility of protests breaking out in the Kurdish-majority region.

The pro-Kurdish BDP political party, which supported but did not join the protests originating in Gezi Park, had called just before Yildirim's death for nationwide demonstrations to pressure the government to advance stalled peace negotiations with Kurdish militants.

The government is currently negotiating with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) to end a 30-year conflict that has killed an estimated 40,000 people. There are concerns among observers that any large-scale Kurdish demonstrations could derail the peace talks

On Tuesday, the BDP offered more explicit support for the protests related to Gezi Park and called for detained protesters to be released.

"It is clear that the Turkish government is worried about a Kurdish version of the Gezi Park events," said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an analyst for the Jamestown Foundation in Istanbul.

Galip Enserioglu, a Diyarbakir MP from Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), said that security forces should be more careful, "but the people should also be more cautious they not do anything to endanger the [Kurdish] peace process".

Ms Pehlivan, the demonstrator in Istanbul, who is also Kurdish, said that while the circumstances of Sarisuluk's and Yildirim's deaths are different, the response from the authorities was the same. She said that any demonstrations by the Kurds or Gezi Park protesters were in the "same spirit".

"Peace will not come to Kurdistan without stopping the violence of police in Istanbul, in Ankara, in Izmir," she said.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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