NEW: Turkey's president says he shares the family's pain, news agency reports
Berkin Elvan was hit in the head by a tear gas canister last summer
He was in a coma in the hospital for nine months
His family wants the government to take responsibility
Grief and rage erupted on the streets of Turkey’s largest city after a 15-year-old boy struck in the head by a tear gas canister died Tuesday morning in a hospital.
Much of the anger was focused on Turkey’s embattled prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
A crowd chanted “fascist government, Erdogan killer,” as Berkin Elvan’s coffin was carried through the streets of the working-class Istanbul neighborhood his family calls home.
Some bystanders wept in the freezing, pouring rain.
President Abdullah Gul spoke with the boy’s father Monday and was saddened by Tuesday’s news, according to the semiofficial Anadolu news agency.
“I extend my condolences to his family. I share their pain,” he said.
Elvan was only 14 when he was critically wounded last summer, at the height of a wave of anti-government protests that erupted across Istanbul and other Turkish cities.
His parents said he left home on the morning of June 16, 2013, to buy a loaf of bread. Less than 15 minutes later, neighbors arrived, telling them their son had been wounded.
The boy suffered blunt trauma to the head. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, an eyewitness said the child was hit by a police tear gas canister.
For the next nine months, Elvan lay in a hospital bed in a coma.
When Elvan’s mother attempted to make a public statement about her son’s ordeal in central Istanbul in July 2013, CNN journalists witnessed and filmed Turkish riot police hitting demonstrators with pepper spray and beating one man with a club in an apparent effort to break up the demonstration.
More recently, riot police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators holding a vigil outside the hospital where Elvan was being treated. Members of the family said the boy wasted away to a weight of 16 kilograms (about 35 pounds) during his nine-month-long coma.
“The government has not accepted any responsibility and they have not brought the police who were responsible for this to justice,” said Ali Kan, one of the men who attended the funeral procession.
News of Elvan’s death sparked a fresh round of protests in other parts of Istanbul, as well as in the capital Ankara, where riot police reportedly intervened using tear gas.
Istanbul police denied using tear gas to disperse crowds that gathered Tuesday at the hospital where Elvan died, Anadolu reported.
Political passions are running high in Turkey. In less than three weeks, the country is expected to go to the polls in nationwide elections. Though voters will be electing town and city mayors in a series of municipal elections, the contest is widely seen as a referendum on Turkey’s long-serving prime minister.
Erdogan has been on the political defensive since December, when police detained dozens of people close to his government as part of a wide-ranging corruption probe.
In subsequent weeks, the prime minister dismissed thousands of police commanders, as well as the prosecutors leading the investigation.
He has also mounted a media offensive against his former political ally, the powerful Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. Erdogan has repeatedly accused Gulen and his supporters of establishing a “parallel state” within the Turkish police and judiciary aimed at toppling his democratically-elected government.
As the corruption probe ground to a halt, anonymous critics began publishing a series of audio recordings online that appear to be wiretaps of Erdogan’s telephone conversations.
Erdogan has denounced some of the recordings, calling them “immorally edited material.” But the prime minister has also confirmed the authenticity of at least one recording, in which he is overheard instructing the executive of a Turkish TV channel to censor the live broadcast of a rival politician’s speech in parliament.
On Tuesday night, Elvan’s body lay in a “cemevi,” the house of worship of the Alevi religious sect to which he belongs. The boy is expected to be buried following a funeral service on Wednesday.
In the meantime, activists have called for symbolic funeral protests to be held in other cities across Turkey.
More than 100 Turkish riot police walled off the center of Istanbul’s busy Taksim Square on Tuesday evening, in a clear effort to prevent demonstrators from gathering in the heart of the city.