ISTANBUL, Turkey: Riot police fired tear gas and water cannon at protesters in Ankara and Istanbul on Wednesday as tens of thousands took to the streets to mourn a teenage boy who died from injuries suffered in last year’s anti-government protests.
At least one person was killed as protests swept the country, a 30-year-old policeman who died of a heart attack after officers confronted demonstrators in the eastern town of Tunceli, the Dogan news agency reported.
In Ankara, police clashed with demonstrators as they tried to stop traffic, and in Istanbul, large crowds shouting anti-government slogans lit a huge fire as they made their way to a cemetery for the burial of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan.
Elvan, who died in an Istanbul hospital Tuesday after 269 days in a coma, was hit on the head by a tear gas canister while going to buy bread during the protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that gripped Turkey in June.
“Berkin’s murderers are the AKP police,” protesters shouted in Istanbul, referring to Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Scuffles broke out when police tried to prevent a group of protesters from gathering on the city’s Taksim Square, the epicenter of the June protests. Police made a number of arrests, and clashes left several people injured.
In the western city of Izmir, one woman was left with a broken leg and several others were hospitalized after police tried to stop crowds marching toward local government buildings, news channel NTV reported.
The renewed unrest, following clashes in at least 32 cities Tuesday, adds to mounting pressure on Erdogan, whose government has been rocked by a corruption scandal ahead of elections that could decide his fate.
Elvan’s story became a symbol for many Turks of the heavy-handed police tactics against the mass protests in June, a major challenge to Erdogan’s 11-year-rule.
The protests started as a relatively small environmentalist movement to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park, but evolved into a nationwide wave of protests against Erdogan, seen as increasingly authoritarian.
An estimated 2.5 million people took to the streets across Turkey over three weeks in June. Medics say more than 8,000 people were injured and at least eight killed, including Elvan.
– ‘Enough is enough’ –
On the campaign trail Wednesday, Erdogan accused protesters of trying to “sabotage” upcoming local elections, which will be followed by a presidential vote in August.
“A government can only be changed at ballot box,” he said at a rally in the southeastern Mardin province.
“Trying to set the street on fire 18 days before elections is not democratic behavior.”
The prime minister has vowed to step down if the AKP, in power since 2002, loses the March 30 elections, seen as a test of his popularity after last year’s unrest and an ongoing graft probe that has ensnared key AKP allies.
Elvan’s parents have lashed out at Erdogan, who at the time of the boy’s death praised police “heroism”.
“If he (Erdogan) had wanted, the murderer would have been found within an hour,” father Sami Elvan told CNN Turk.
Protestors hung “wanted” posters featuring pictures of Erdogan on bus stops in Ankara’s Kizilay square. Others carried banners warning: “Murderer state, you will be held accountable!”
“Erdogan’s police killed this guy. He should be ashamed but he didn’t even send his condolences to the family,” said a student who gave her name as Ayse.
“Enough is enough, we are fed up with this government of murderers,” she told AFP.
Several political parties and trade unions called for mass protests after Elvan’s funeral against AKP authoritarianism and the swelling corruption scandal.
Erdogan himself has been implicated in the scandal; with leaked recordings surfacing online in which he purportedly can be heard talking to his son about hiding millions of euros in cash. He has dismissed the recordings as fabricated.
After the scandal erupted, the AKP-dominated parliament passed new legislation tightening state control over the Internet and judiciary, attracting widespread criticism and raising questions about the state of democracy in Turkey.
The European Parliament warned Wednesday that the new laws could hinder Turkey’s bid to enter the bloc.