Photo by Dogu Eroglu, Stories of Violence from Turkey
On June 1, the second day of Turkey's nationwide protests that began in Istanbul's Gezi Park, Ethem Sarisülük, a laborer and human-rights activist, was shot in the head by a policeman in Ankara. After spending 13 days in intensive care, Ethem's heart stopped, and his family announced his death on June 14. Ten days later, Ahmet Şahbaz, the police officer who killed Ethem, was released from jail by a judge on the grounds that he acted in self-defense, a move that was greeted with a lot of anger on social media and in the streets. (Ahmet's trial was suspended by a judge last week, and advocates criticized this as another way the government was helping to protect the police.)
For the past few weeks, demonstrators have been gathering at Taksim Square in Istanbul every Saturday to demand justice for Ethem, and the cops have been responding with tactics reminiscent of those that led to the deaths of Ethem and two other protesters. Recently, I talked to Ethem’s brother, Mustafa Sarisülük, about the day Ethem was shot, the government’s response to Ethem’s death, and Turkey’s long-standing tradition of state terrorism.
VICE: Police violence in Turkey got a lot of attention in the international media thanks to the Gezi Park demonstrations, but it's not a new phenomenon—over 140 people have been killed by the police since 2007. What was your point of view on the subject before the current tragic string of events?
Mustafa Sarisülük: “State terrorism” would actually be a better way to put it than “police violence.” With the current turn of events, many think the police are in favor of the AKP [the political party that has dominated Turkey for a decade], hence the violence. It’s not as simple as that—the police are an armed paramilitary force used by the state. From the beginning of the Republic of Turkey, the state has employed despotism, violence, and massacres. Thanks to the Gezi Park protests, the oppression is now seen by the whole society.
Did you or Ethem have to face this kind of state-sponsored terror before?
After the "deep state" events in the 90s [that revealed the existence of shadowy paramilitary groups within the government], I felt an urge to be involved because of the level of human rights violations, violence toward the people, and extrajudicial killings. Even as a kid in junior high, Ethem used to join me at the protests. Since then, we exercised our rights and freedoms of assembly, protest, and expression. We both faced violence and custody repeatedly.
Before AKP came to power in 2002, the originator of violence was mainly the military. But now that the AKP has been in power for ten years, the violence is often perpetrated by the police. How do you interpret the changes over the last decade?
Even though the AKP has been claiming that they are defending human rights and dissolving the deep state, they have never been up to that task. There has been no change concerning the police-related extrajudicial killings or tortures. For me, the killing of Uğur Kaymaz summarizes the decade best—when that alleged terrorist was found dead with his father, there were more bullets in his body than years of his life; he was 12. The fact that his murderers still remain unknown shows that the AKP continues the state tradition. Today, people who shout “solidarity against fascism” in the streets direct their anger not only against AKP policies, but also to the state tradition that lies behind them.
Photo by Adnan Onur Acar, Nar Photos
The police crackdown at Gezi Park against the peaceful protesters on May 31 triggered protests in other cities, including the one you joined in Ankara. What was that experience like for you?
I heard about the police attack in Gezi Park on May 31, but because of work, I had to wait until Saturday, June 1, to join the protests. I was at Kizilay Square that day when the police started to attack people with extreme force. Some children who got head injuries or were blinded by tear gas were protesting for the first time in their lives. In that turmoil, I started to protect the people around me. The police were aiming at civilians’ heads and upper bodies while shooting tear gas and rubber bullets. I helped people with broken arms and legs as the police terror continued through the morning. Then I heard several gunshots around 1 PM.
Throughout the protests, the government tried to justify the police brutality by saying that the officers had been working under poor conditions for very long hours. However, on June 1 the protests in Ankara had just started, and the police weren’t tired or sleepless.
I really wish I had a camera on me that day so that I could've documented what I saw. The police were trying to kill people—I carried dozens of seriously wounded people just by myself. I saw several policemen lying down, positioning themselves like snipers. After taking their time to aim, they would shoot gas canisters directly at people’s heads. As soon as I arrived on Saturday, I knew that police brutality would lead to grave consequences and deaths.
When did you find out that Ethem was shot?
About an hour before the police shot him, Ethem had already been wounded while trying to protect a woman wearing a headscarf—he was using himself as a shield against the gas canisters. One hit him at the back of his head. Ethem would always be on the front lines in such events, so he was on my mind while I was at the square. Just as I started searching for him, we heard a few gunshots. Since I had seen the police shooting in the air a few times, it didn’t occur to me that someone could have been hit by those shots. Then I saw a stretcher being taken to an ambulance in the distance, but again, it never occurred to me that it could have been Ethem. It was only when we received a call from the hospital that we understood the situation.
Photo by Esra Kocak, BirGun
What happened after you went to the hospital?
I knew my brother wouldn’t live as soon as I saw him. I went to the doctors and asked them for the results of the brain scan. They were surprised that I made such a specific demand instead of just asking how the patient was. When we examined the images with the doctors, we saw the bullet still deep in Ethem’s brain. It had ripped a hole in both hemispheres.
One of the government's claims at the time was that Ethem had been wounded by the stones thrown by the protesters. How did the truth get out?
The footage showing the incident is nothing but hard evidence. The police officer, Ahmet Şahbaz, kicks a protestor, calmly draws his gun, and fires several rounds. One of the bullets hits Ethem in the head. The murder is crystal clear, yet, at the time there was a nationwide censorship campaign going on. We counteracted the censorship by spreading the images of the incident on social media and getting into contact with NGOs. Ethem’s brain stopped working a week after he was shot, but we waited for a few days, hoping that there would be an improvement. On June 12, when we told the public that Ethem’s brain death had occured, the Ministry of Health contradicted us and said that Ethem was in a coma and that his situation was improving. We lost Ethem on June 14.
On June 24, Prime Minister Erdoğan said, “The police have stayed within the limits of the law, and written an epic tale of heroism.” On the very same day, the police officer that killed Ethem was released from jail. Did this verdict lower your expectations for the judicial process to follow?
The prime minister had declared at the outset that he would not “let anyone bully [his] police.” We therefore predicted that the judicial process would unfold the way it did.
The investigation at the site of the incident, expert reports, eyewitness statements, and footage all point to [what the officer did being] murder. The judge didn't consider any of that, nor did he think my brother’s autopsy report and the ballistics report counted as hard evidence.
Do you think there are any set of circumstances that would have justified a self-defense claim by the officer?
Not at all. While other police officers were retreating under their chief’s command, the one who killed Ethem charged forward with great hatred, kicked one of the protesters, and got in the middle of the crowd. He then calmly drew his weapon and fired it.
Dogu Eroglu is an investigative journalist for Stories of Violence from Turkey (site in Turkish), where he publishes the stories of individuals who have been subject to human rights violations. He is also a staff writer at BirGun, a Turkish daily, and a founding member of the Conscientious Objectors Association in Turkey.
More on Turkey and its discontents: