12 Mar 2014

Erdogan’s Turkey: CS gas, a ban on Facebook… and EU accession?

A CS gas canister is a bit smaller than a can of Red Bull and weighs around 12 ounces. Fired into the air at a 45-degree angle, and more than 100 yards away – as specified in the instructions on the side – it will land, spread its gas and disperse a crowd.

Fired straight at you at a distance of less than 30 yards and it will take your eye out, or even kill you.

That’s what happened to 15-year-old Berkin Elvan during the Turkish protests last year. He left his home to buy bread, was hit in the head by a CS canister and was in a coma until yesterday, when he died.

Last night crowds of people took to the street and engaged in bitter barricade fighting with the riot police. Today, during Berkin’s funeral, there have been further clashes. People have been holding up loaves of bread. There is an intense atmosphere, reflected on social media with widespread expressions of anger against the police and the Erdogan government.


Berkin is among eight people who have now died as a result of last June’s protests. Thousands of people were injured – hundreds of them with CS gas canister injuries to the head. Human Rights Watch has documented clear evidence that police were targeting demonstrators directly, and at short range with the CS canisters.

130,000 canisters were fired during the protest. An investigation into the incident in which Berkin was shot produced no prosecutions against the police.

Today’s demos come after a torrid few weeks for prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Recordings have appeared – which the government says are fake – intending to mire Mr Erdogan in corruption allegations. He removed several hundred police officers loyal to the Islamist leader Fethullah Gulen in January and replaced them with cops loyal to his own AK Party government.

On Friday, Mr Erdogan threatened to shut down Facebook and YouTube, which have been used to spread the allegedly fake recordings.

Since last June, when hundreds of thousands of young, mainly secular Turks took to the streets against the growing encroachment of Islamic moralism into their lives – and the repression of dissent – Mr Erdogan’s government has survived by the use of large scale repressive force. Its use of CS gas as a targeted projectile was found in the European Court of Human Rights to be a violation of human rights.

Yet during last night’s protests, CS gas was again used on a large scale and some protesters claimed to have heard police officers instructing their colleagues to “aim for their eyes”.

I know from personal experience what that might mean. I was about 25 yards from a police unit firing CS gas in Istanbul on 2 June 2013 when a canister hit my helmet, just above my eye. The dent in the plastic shown below gives an idea of what it would have done if I had not been wearing a helmet.


As you read this, tens of thousands of young Turkish people are risking serious injury to protest the death of a young boy at the hands of a police force that has already been condemned by the European Court, in a country that wants to ban Facebook.

Did I mention that it also wants to join the European Union?

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