KAYSEREI, Turkey — Four policemen went on trial amid tight security in Turkey on Monday, accused of beating to death a 19-year-old student in the huge anti-government protests that rocked the country last June.
The high-profile court case comes as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan battles his biggest crisis in 11 years in power, which has hit the economy and is threatening the strongman’s presidential ambitions.
Some 2,000 riot police were deployed in the central city of Kayseri for the start of the trial, roads around the courthouse were blocked and demonstrations banned for “security” reasons.
Activists trying to get to Kayseri for the trial said that several buses carrying demonstrators were prevented from entering the city overnight and on Monday morning.
The case centers on the death of Ali Islmail Kokmaz, who died after being pummeled with baseball bats and truncheons in the western city of Eskisehir on June 2, one of one of six people to perish as three weeks of protests convulsed the country of 76 million.
The attack was recorded by security cameras and the 19-year-old student, wearing a “World Peace” T-shirt, suffered a brain hemorrhage and died after 38 days in a coma.
In an attempt to avoid fresh trouble, authorities moved the trial some 550 kilometers (350 miles) east of Eskisehir to Kayseri.
“My son will never come back but I want his killers punished,” the dead student’s mother Emel Korkmaz told Turkish media, saying she would attend the trial to “look them in the eye.”
More than 8,000 people were injured, the Turkish Medical Association says, during the protests in June that began as a peaceful sit-in against plans to build on a Istanbul park.
Erdogan called the demonstrators “vandals” and branded Twitter, used to organised protests, a “troublemaker.” Heavy-handed police tools included tear gas, plastic bullets and even live ammunition.
Amnesty International said there were “gross human rights violations” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — hosting Erdogan in Berlin this Tuesday — at the time called the police response “much too harsh.”
Apart from a trial that began last year of a policeman — facing five years — for allegedly shooting dead a demonstrator in Ankara, police officers in the dock over the June violence has been a very rare sight.
The first court case involving demonstrators, meanwhile, is penciled in for the first half of the year, with 255 expected to be tried, some of on “terrorism” charges.
Erdogan, 59, is now battling even bigger problems since a corruption
Erdogan is co-founder of the Justice and Development Party, the Islamic-rooted movement that has dominated politics since 2002, presiding over a booming economy and rising living standards.
But for critics, his handling of last June’s protests and of the graft scandal have revealed something rotten about Erdogan’s Turkey, once hailed as a model Muslim democracy and emerging economy.
Both episodes have also raised questions about Erdogan’s hopes of being elected president in August — he cannot run for another term as prime minister — and much will depend on local elections in March.
Worries about Erdogan’s stewardship have also contributed to the lira losing a third of its value in six months, prompting the central bank to hike interest rates last week — despite the premier’s protests.