x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Protester death sparks accusations of police oppression in Turkey

Analysts say the perception that brutality by police was being covered up widened a dangerous divide already in the country. Thomas Seibertreports from Istanbul

Turkish police have been accused of brutality during protests. Some government critics say the police were ordered to crackdown severely on demonstrators. AP Photo
Turkish police have been accused of brutality during protests. Some government critics say the police were ordered to crackdown severely on demonstrators. AP Photo
ISTANBUL // Turkish police face renewed accusations of acting as state oppressors after a video was uncovered that shows policemen beating a university student who later died from his injuries.

Turkish authorities are accused of trying to delete the video and cover up other incidents of police violence in their latest clashes with anti-government protesters.

Prosecutors say there were repeated attempts to delete footage of the assault on Ali Ismail Korkmaz, 19, by police and civilians in the western city of Eskisehir in June, from the hard disk of a surveillance camera. Korkmaz, a student at Anadolu University in Eskisehir, was beaten and kicked so severely that he died of his injuries in July.

Video of the beating on the night of June 2 would have been lost had it not been for experts of the military police, who restored it, Gurkan Korkmaz, the brother of the victim, said this week. The military police, which keeps order outside metropolitan areas of Turkey, had been asked by state prosecutors to examine the hard disk when it emerged that footage had been deleted.

Citing the military police, Mr Korkmaz said there were four attempts to delete the recording. Two attempts appeared to have been made while the footage was in the hands of a civilian expert who had been asked to assess the pictures. The expert, Serkan Ugurluoglu, has said he did not try to manipulate the disk.

Based on the restored footage, a state prosecutor in Eskisehir this month charged four policemen and four civilians with causing Korkmaz's death.

The civilians and one of the policeman are in pretrial detention, but the other three policemen have been released because they were only charged with aiding in the assault.

Accusations of a cover-up started immediately after the incident, when authorities in Eskisehir said Korkmaz had been attacked by other protesters.

"Of course the police are being protected," his brother said. He accused the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of supporting police action against demonstrators. "The police are the army of the government," Mr Korkmaz said. "There is no supervision."

After a lull during much of July and August, there were new anti-government protests in Turkey last week. One protester, Ahmet Atakan, died in the southern city of Antakya. While protesters said he died after being hit by a tear-gas cartridge, authorities said Atakan fell off the roof of a building. The interior ministry has promised an investigation.

Last week's protests also brought other accusations of police misconduct. Hande Kuday, a lawyer in Istanbul, said two women were forced to strip naked after being detained at an anti-government rally in Kadikoy, a neighbourhood in the Asian part of the city. Other protesters were beaten by police officers as they were detained, Ms Kuday said.

Analysts say the perception police that brutality was being covered up has widened a dangerous divide in the country.

"It is extremely bad for the social unity of Turkey," said Halil Ibrahim Bahar, a professor at Turkey's Police Academy in Ankara and an analyst at the Ankara Strategy Institute, a think tank. He said the police should try to clear up cases like the one in Eskisehir quickly and strive for transparency.

"The government has to regard this as a special case," he said.

Korkmaz, the victim, was a member of the Alevi minority, who number about 25 million in Turkey. The Alevis are followers of a liberal strand of Islam with links to Shiites and feel excluded by Turkey's Sunni majority.

Levent Tuzel, an independent member of parliament in Ankara and a government critic, said the police had become "an extension of the government and an instrument of oppression" that was allowed to act with impunity.

He said the interior ministry had ordered police units to be more careful in the use of tear gas against protesters, after many complaints of disproportionate force during the unrest in June. "But the latest clashes have shown that it goes on like before," Mr Tuzel said.

Prof Bahar said it was the government's task to make it clear to the public and the police that brutality such as the beating of Korkmaz was unacceptable.

He pointed to the government's criticism of the way authorities in Egypt dealt with Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators at Rabia Al Adawiyya mosque in Cairo last month. Mr Erdogan even wept on live television when he listened to a poem written by a Brotherhood official about his 17-year-old daughter, who was killed in the Cairo unrest.

"The government's message has to be that we mourn for Ali Ismail Korkmaz at least as much as we do for Rabia," Prof Bahar said. But he added that local and presidential elections next year meant that further polarisation was much more likely. "It is becoming part of the election campaign."

tseibert@thenational.ae