ISTANBUL (REUTERS) – Tens of thousands of mourners, many chanting anti-government slogans, gathered in central Istanbul on Wednesday 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 worries for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan as he battles a corruption scandal that has become one of the biggest challenges of his decade in power.
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 for burial.
The ceremony was broadcast live on major television news channels, some of which were criticised for their scant coverage of last June’s unrest.
In the capital Ankara, several thousand protesters gathered in the central Kizilay square, while police fired tear gas at demonstrators in the poor Alevi neighbourhood of Tuzlucayir.
Alevis are a religious minority in mainly Sunni Muslim Turkey who espouse a liberal version of Islam and have often been at odds with Mr Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted government.
“They made us outsiders because we are democrats, leftist and Alevis. This death shows this discrimination very clearly,”said Ms Sibel Aydemir, a 42-year-old housewife among the crowds.
Elvan, then aged 14, got caught up in street battles in Istanbul between police and protesters on June 16 while going to buy bread for his family. 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 have 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.
Mr Erdogan, campaigning around the country for March 30 local elections, has yet to comment on Elvan’s death. He dismissed last summer’s protesters as riff-raff, and has cast both those weeks of unrest and the corruption scandal which erupted in December as part of an orchestrated campaign to undermine him.
The uncertainty in the run-up to elections has unnerved Turkish investors, with the lira languishing at its weakest in five weeks, but has shown little sign so far of unseating the prime minister, fiercely popular in the conservative Anatolian heartlands for delivering a decade of rising prosperity.
“The recent barrage of corruption allegations ... appear to have had little impact on Erdogan’s electoral popularity, merely deepening the political divides in an already highly polarised society,” said Mr Wolfango Piccoli, managing director of research firm Teneo Intelligence.
“(But) the death of a child on his way to buy bread for his family is something that cuts across political divides and will have particular resonance amongst the urban and rural poor who form Erdogan’s core support base.”
Istanbul and Ankara have both seen protests in recent weeks against what demonstrators regard as Erdogan’s authoritarian reaction to the graft affair, which has included new laws tightening Internet controls and handing government greater influence over the appointment of judges and prosecutors.
But opinion polls suggest that while support for his AK Party may have slipped, it remains comfortably ahead of rivals, with Mr Erdogan’s supporters pointing to a sharp rise in living standards during his 11-year tenure.
Protesters stood by fires at barricades blocking roads around the poor Okmeydani neighbourhood. Signs on shop windows said stores would remain shut for two days, while traders sold black and white flags bearing Berkin’s face.
Two labour unions called a one-day strike and encouraged members to attend the funeral while professors at some universities announced they were cancelling classes.
In the eastern province of Tunceli, which has an Alevi majority, around 1,000 school children marched across town and staged a sit-in in front of the offices of the ruling AK Party.
The boy’s father, Mr Sami Elvan, received mourners in front of the cemevi. His mother, Mrs Gulsum Elvan, embraced the mother of a man who died during last summer’s protests, Ms Ethem Sarisuluk.
“This is just the beginning, continue the struggle,” the crowd chanted.
State media reported Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc as saying music would not be played during his election campaigning out of respect for Elvan. Mr Erdogan is due to address a separate rally in the southeastern city of Siirt later on Wednesday.
“We were plunged into deep sadness by his loss of life in such an incident. May he rest in peace,” Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag told state broadcaster TRT, adding that an investigation into the circumstances of Elvan’s death was continuing.