Hostage crisis is campaign gift for Erdogan

Istanbul hostage incident highlights the enduring impact of the Gezi protests and the polarisation of Turkish society.

Frustration towards the government is palpable in ubiquitous graffiti, including 'Berkin Elvan is immortal,' writes Lepeska [AFP]
Frustration towards the government is palpable in ubiquitous graffiti, including 'Berkin Elvan is immortal,' writes Lepeska [AFP]

One of Turkey’s classic whirlwind news days kicked off mid-morning Tuesday when a blackout gripped the country, grounding flights, shutting down transport links and stranding late-arriving commuters from the Bosporus Strait to the Mediterranean.

A few hours later, a government prosecutor called for the acquittal of all 236 suspects in the Balyoz (Sledgehammer) coup plot trial, citing digital files that could not constitute evidence. This marked a 180-degree-turn in a vast, complex case the ruling Justice and Development Party had prosecuted for years.

Around that same time, two men armed with guns strolled into an Istanbul courthouse in lawyers’ robes, made their way to the sixth floor and took Mehmet Selim Kiraz hostage. Kiraz had been named the public prosecutor in the case of Berkin Elvan, a 14-year-old Istanbul resident who had been hit in the face with a teargas canister during the 2013 Gezi protests, and died nine months later.

Police fight with anti-government protesters in Turkey

Gut punch

The gunmen wore bandannas over their faces and claimed to be part of an outlawed leftist group, the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C).

They issued a list of demands: that police confess, live and on camera, to Elvan’s killing; that the officers responsible be named and prosecuted in a “people’s court” (whatever that might be); and that those facing charges for participating in Elvan solidarity rallies be acquitted.

Then, the gut punch.

“The militants will punish the prosecutor with death, unless he abides with their demands within three hours,” said a statement on a website called Halkin Sesi, or the Voice of the People, which has been linked to the DHKP-C.

Turkish authorities sprang into action. Within 90 minutes the building had been evacuated and a Special Forces team had secured the 6th floor. As the 3:35pm deadline passed and negotiations began, the father of Berkin Elvan, in a widely shared tweet, made an urgent plea: “My son is dead, no one else should die. The prosecutor must be released.”

The Caglayan Palace of Justice, the scene of the crisis, is the largest courthouse in Europe. It’s known for a gauntlet of guards and security checks, but its security record is spotty. A year ago, a woman and the police officer escorting her were killed by the woman’s son as they entered the building.

Elvan is from Okmeydani, a working class Istanbul neighbourhood populated by Alevis, Kurds, socialists and other groups often marginalised in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey.

During the Gezi protests, a group of lawyers protesting within Caglayan were roughed up by police and detained for several hours, before release. And in 2011, a dozen people were stabbed in two separate fights between opposing parties attending a trial.


The blackout was Turkey’s largest in 15 years, gripping all but one of the country’s 81 provinces and underscoring the government’s catch-as-catch-can approach to infrastructure.

The Sledgehammer reversal, which led later in the day to the acquittal of all defendants, was the logical endpoint of the government turnaround following the Gulenists’ December 2013 corruption probe, and, by most accounts, marked a reasonable approximation of justice.

Yet, the hostage incident was the day’s most meaningful bit of news, highlighting the enduring impact of the Gezi protests, which were marked by government heavy handedness and lack of remorse, and deepened the polarisation of Turkish society. The AKP narrative is that the conservative, Turkey-loving milli irade (national will) must constantly battle the coup-plotting capulcu (looters, or dissenters).

Elvan is from Okmeydani, a working class Istanbul neighbourhood populated by Alevis, Kurds, socialists and other groups often marginalised in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. Frustration towards the government is palpable, visible even – in ubiquitous graffiti, including “Berkin Elvan is immortal.”

A sizable chunk of the neighbourhood has been slated for demolition as part of Ankara’s national urban renewal plan, and many young locals have taken to battling the government with violence. Many have also turned to the Marxist DHKP-C, which is considered a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States and maintains a robust cell in the neighbourhood.

Turkish special forces take position in front of the courthouse [AFP]

Elvan’s ‘defenders’

Last March, in the days after Elvan’s death, Erdogan spoke of Elvan at a campaign rally, as “this kid with steel marbles in his pockets, with a slingshot in his hand, his face covered with a scarf, who had been drawn in by terror organisations”.

Now, a year later, Elvan’s defenders emerged on a drizzly afternoon, faces covered with scarves, to threaten a public prosecutor with ISIL-style execution and demand vigilante justice – an AKP fantasy come to life.

As negotiations wound into evening, Elvan’s father spoke on the phone to the gunmen, pleading for the prosecutor’s life and explaining that all he wanted was a fair trial.

Shortly after 8:30pm, the special forces unit stormed the gunmen in a hail of bullets, killing both. Shot five times – three in the head – the prosecutor was rushed to the hospital but later died.

In the end, they terrorised Turkey’s largest city and killed a public servant, sullying the memory of Berkin Elvan and handing the AKP ideal campaign ammunition in the lead-up to June’s parliamentary elections, along with an excellent reason to enforce its controversial new security law, which gives police broad authority to wiretap, detain and even shoot protesters.

The Caglayan gunmen, likely assuming Kiraz would fail to find sufficient evidence to charge police officers with the killing of Elvan, saw an opportunity with the power outage and took matters into their own hands. The DHKP-C has never been known for its strategic brilliance.

But the way this incident turned out was enough to make one wonder just whose side they were on. The next morning’s front-page headline in the pro-government daily newspaper Yeni Akit summed it up nicely: “Gezi Park protesters killed prosecutor.”

David Lepeska, a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Financial Times and other outlets. His work focuses on Turkey and the Middle East. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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