Tens of thousands of mourners chanting anti-government slogans marched through central Istanbul yesterday for the funeral of a teenager wounded in street protests last summer whose death has sparked renewed unrest across Turkey.
Riot police fired water cannon and tear gas at protests in several cities after Berkin Elvan’s death on Tuesday, adding to pre-election woes for Islamist prime minister Tayyip Erdogan as he battles a corruption scandal that has become one of the biggest challenges of his reign.
Crowds chanting “Tayyip! Killer!” and “Everywhere is Berkin, everywhere is resistance” held up photos of Elvan outside a “cemevi”, an Alevi place of worship, in Istanbul’s working class Okmeydani district, from where his coffin, draped in red and covered in flowers, was carried through the streets.
The boy’s father, Sami Elvan, received mourners in front of the cemevi. His mother, Gulsum Elvan, embraced the mother of a man who died during last summer’s protests, Ethem Sarisuluk.
Alevis are a religious minority in mainly Sunni Muslim Turkey who espouse a liberal version of Islam and have often been at odds with Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted government.
Police in the capital Ankara fired tear gas to disperse several thousand protesters in the central Kizilay square, and there were also clashes in the poor Alevi neighbourhood of Tuzlucayir across the city.
Erdogan, on the campaign trail ahead of municipal elections on 30 March, addressed a rally in the south-eastern city of Siirt but failed to mention the teenager’s death in his speech.
Referring to last summer’s protests, he accused a coalition of “anarchists, terrorists and vandals” as well as the opposition and followers of an influential US-based Islamic cleric of stoking trouble to undermine him.
“Don’t worry we will hold them to account. You will hold them to account at the ballot box on 30 March,” he thundered.
Anger at the perceived growing authoritarianism of Erdogan motivated many attending the funeral procession in Istanbul. The protests last summer were for greater democratic freedom and over fears about growing Islamism in what has been a secular nation since modern Turkey was established in the 1920s.
“The lack of compassion, the polarising attitude of the prime minister and the fact that he behaves like an autocrat is what brought us here,” said Emre, 32.
The funeral was live on television news channels, some of which were criticised for poor coverage of last June’s unrest.
Elvan, then 14, was caught in street battles in Istanbul between police and protesters on 16 June while going to buy bread. He became a rallying point for government opponents, who held vigils at the Istanbul hospital where he lay in intensive care from a head trauma believed to been caused by a police tear gas canister.
His death has sparked the most extensive street protests since last June, with skirmishes on Tuesday in cities including Mersin on the Mediterranean coast, Samsun on the Black Sea and the southern city of Adana, as well as Istanbul and Ankara.
Erdogan, who is campaigning around the country, has yet to comment on Elvan’s death. He dismissed last summer’s protesters as riff-raff, and said the unrest and a corruption scandal which erupted in December were part of a campaign to undermine him.
But Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Berkin Elvan “has become a symbol of Turkey’s record of police violence and lack of accountability”.