Funeral of teen killed by police ignites unrest in Turkey

Tear gas and water cannons are fired on mourners grieving for a boy killed during the Gezi Park protests

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Mourners carry the coffin of Berkin Elvan

Nine months ago, a 15-year-old boy in Turkey left his house to buy bread – only to never return home again. During the protests last year over a planned development in Gezi Park in Istanbul, the teenager was struck in the head by a tear gas canister fired by police and fell into a coma. Berkin Elvan spent 269 days in this coma and weighed just 16 kilos before his death on Tuesday. The news ignited a fire that has seen Turks from Stockholm to Izmit out on the streets to both mourn and protest. The policeman responsible is yet to be identified.

"Berkin Elvan was an Alevi, a sect in Turkey which has been feeling left out, threatened and neglected since the AK Party government came to power," says journalist and Turkish commentator Alexandra de Cramer. “Again Turkey witnesses a bash on freedom of expression. On this particular occasion however, they are not protesting about trees or internet liberties but expressing their anger for the death of a 14-year-old.” 

Thousands of mourners arrived early on Wednesday on the streets near an Alevi Muslim prayer hall, known as a Cemevi, in the Okmeydan in Istanbul, the site where he sustained his head injury in 2013. There to mourn and show respect the scene was indicative of a public state funeral. People lined the streets with banners, posters and pictures of the young boy and sang hymns through the morning. As the streets continued to swell, the president, Abdullah Gul, appealed for "calm" ahead of the funeral service, but comments from other government officials enflamed anti-government protesters.

"Former EU minister Egemen Bagis insulted the funeral attendees of the police victim, calling them 'necrophilliacs'," says de Cramer. "The son of the mayor of Ankara, Osman Gökçek, claims that the 14-year-old was 'armed'. Such commentary from AK Party members has only spiked the anger of protesting citizens."

Social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook have been abuzz with comments surrounding the death of Berkin Elvan. "R.I.P #BerkinElvan" and #269days is trending on Twitter, while Istanbul crowds chant anti-government slogans, cheer, clap and sound car horns. In Ankara police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse some 2,000 protesters who chanted: "Government of Erdogan, government of corruption, resign, resign."

The main Turkish media has remained quiet in contrast to the digital and physical outpourings, something de Cramer thinks is indicative of the government. "The government is silent and unapologetic," she says, whilst Mustafa Sarıgül, the Istanbul mayoral candidate for opposition party CHP "ordered garbage trucks to stand as shields between the protestors and the water cannons" in a bid to quell violence. "Izmir Mayor, Aziz Kocaoğlu (also a CHP member) declared that they will not supply water to the armoured water cannon vehicles. This only goes to show how polarised the nation is and the rising tension is deepening this polarisation."

Reports are coming in that police are clashing with funeral protesters in and around Istanbul. Filmmaker Camille Antunes posted on Twitter that “100s of police riots locked the square” in an attempt to prevent protesters attending the funeral, whilst the journalist David Lepeska, who is in Gezi Square, says that the Istanbul governor is thanking the police for using water cannons and tear gas to keep the peace. "The protests are already being dubbed the Berkin March.

Earlier today President Gul sent a message of condolence to Elvan's family, saying that "Turkey was going through difficult days and that the mind of the state has become overwhelmed by anger and hatred". With water canon now in deployment on hundreds of funeral attendees and mourners, it is doubtful their anger will subside. The violence looks set to increase now that Berkin Elvan has been laid to rest as hordes of protesters gear up for a turbulent night.

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