Istanbul, Turkey – On June 3 last year, Ali Ismail Korkmaz – a 19-year-old student in Turkey – was clubbed to death at an anti-government protest in the city of Eskisehir.
He slipped into a coma, struggling with a brain haemorrhage for 38 days before losing his life. Supporters of the Turkish government and undercover policemen have been accused of killing him.
Although many Turks will hold forth on just about any political issue, the case of Korkmaz is so tragic that nobody dares politicise it along the country’s traditional party lines – at least not openly. Korkmaz was demonstrating as part of the Gezi Park protests that shook Turkey last year, ignited by police crackdowns on a minor sit-in action to prevent the demolition of trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park.
The first hearing in the trial over Korkmaz’s death was held on February 3. Four members of the Turkish police forces and four civilians appeared in court, accused of several charges including premeditated murder, which carries a life sentence.
The trial was moved from Eskisehir to the conservative Anatolian city of Kayseri, with authorities citing “security concerns”. Eskisehir, a predominantly left-wing city that often harbours anti-government sentiment, was highly active during the Gezi Park protests.
The Korkmaz hearing is being held during an uneasy period for Turkey, given recent corruption investigations that led to the resignation of three ministers. The scandal, which struck another blow to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), is seen as a result of a rivalry between the AKP and the Gulen Movement, a religious group known to be highly influential in state institutions.
One case, four cities
Not only was the Korkmaz trial moved from Eskisehir, it has also been divided into four parts, to be held in four separate cities – again, for “security concerns”, drawing criticism from the Korkmaz family and human rights activists.
“The fact that the main case has been moved from the city of the incident to another and is being heard in four different cities go against the principle of fair trial – as referred to in Article Six of the European Convention on Human Rights, which Turkey is a party of,” said Professor Rona Aybay, a former judge involved in several international human rights commissions and courts. “All [actors in court] should be in the same environment, looking in each other’s eyes and faces. This is psychologically important.”
A throng of 2,030 riot police was deployed around the courthouse in Kayseri for the February 3 hearing, according to the Kayseri governorship. The roads leading to the building were blocked and demonstrations were banned on the day of the trial. Two armoured water cannon vehicles were set up and a police helicopter hovered around the courthouse. Many of the protesters who traveled to Kayseri for the trial were prevented from entering the city, activists said.
According to the Turkish Medical Association, five protesters died and more than 8,000 were injured in last summer’s demonstrations, along with a policeman who fell from a bridge. However, the deaths of Korkmaz and Ethem Sarisuluk, another activist who was shot dead in Ankara by police, have caused a public uproar as the incidents were recorded by security cameras and the footage publicised by the Turkish media.
In Korkmaz’s case, there is video footage of the student being clubbed and kicked by a group of men in civilian clothes. Ironically, the shirt he was wearing on the day of the incident read “World Peace”.
The footage of his killing was not easy to obtain. Some of it was deleted in the days following the attack. Later, at the prosecutor’s request, a gendarmerie criminal unit was able to recover the deleted sections.
“I get the impression that it is going to be a fair trial. Pressure might be put on the court panel in the coming days; it is possible and happened before. However, for now, the panel expressed its intention to implement a proper judiciary process,” said Ayhan Erdogan, one of the counsels leading the volunteer group of 300 lawyers defending the Korkmaz family.
Few policemen have stood trial following the Gezi Park crackdown. “Even if investigations into police violence [are] launched, they get covered up in the process, so it is hard to bring a case to the court stage,” said Ayhan Erdogan. Prosecutors and police forces are closely intertwined in Turkey, said Aybay, the professor and judge, meaning that launching investigations into security forces’ actions is “harder and slower” than usual.
Some citizens injured by the police have been summoned to court – but as defendants, although they have yet to formally appear. Mustafa Ali Tombul was wounded by a tear gas canister that deformed his skull in an incident near Gezi Park in July 2013. The 17-year-old remained in a coma for weeks, and had two major surgeries before being discharged from hospital later that month. In January 2014, Tombul was served an order calling him to the courthouse to face charges of participating in anti-government protests.
Ayhan Erdogan told Al Jazeera that the right to freedom of assembly should have been respected, noting that Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe and a party to the European Convention on Human Rights.
In the days that followed the attack on Korkmaz, the governor and police chief of Eskisehir denied reports that he was beaten by policemen. Eskisehir Governor Gungor Azim Tuna went even further and said that other activists might have beaten the 19-year-old in order to put the blame on Turkish security forces. He also threatened a Turkish journalist to stop reporting on the issue.
I am calling on all mothers and fathers. If you do not want your children to be clubbed to death in the middle of the street, do not forget this case.
Ayhan Erdogan said the governor and chief police commissioner should themselves have been investigated, as they were the ones who ordered the police to use force. “In Turkey, such incidents are almost never brought to courts. So, it is not likely for higher-rank officials to stand trials in this particular case either,” he said.
In the courthouse, Korkmaz’s mother carried his photograph throughout the hearing, shouting at the suspects: “How could you kill my son without pity? What has he done to you? How can you look at the face of your own children and your mothers?”
The police officer who is the leading suspect in the case denied that he attacked Korkmaz, saying the person his group hit with sticks was “much taller”. Claiming that the person on the ground swore at him, the policeman said he used his right to use force by “lightly poking” the victim with his foot. The policeman who allegedly delivered the fatal blow to Korkmaz also said he could not hit hard, since his foot had been injured.
Another police officer said he did not arrest the civilians he claimed beat the protester, because he “thought that they were policemen”.
‘Blowing off steam’
“We did not know the police would beat and kill him,” said one of the civilian suspects, adding that he and other civilians blocked the protester’s way after police officers chasing him shouted at them to do so.
According to one witness, the police suspects said, “we nicely blew off some steam” after beating Korkmaz.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to reply to questions about the case, as it remains an ongoing judicial process.
Meanwhile, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the centre-left opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said that his party was following the Korkmaz case closely. About a dozen MPs from his party attended the first hearing. “I am calling on all mothers and fathers,” said Kilicdaroglu. “If you do not want your children to be clubbed to death in the middle of the street, do not forget this case.”
Tugrul Turkes, the deputy chairman of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, the third-largest party in Turkey’s parliament, said in an unexpected statement that “some circles were trying to legitimise the incident” due to Korkmaz’s religious background.
“They say Ali Ismail was an Alevi [a religious group in Turkey that combines Shia Islam with Sufi elements demanding religious minority status]; they say he was an atheist. In response, we say he was a human being.”
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras