It was a Monday night in early June. Protesters will remember it as the night they celebrated the occupation of Istanbul’s central Taksim Square and the adjacent Gezi Park after a weekend of clashes with the police in what was arguably the largest wave of protests in recent Turkish history.
However, Hakan Yaman, neither a protester nor a political activist, remembers it as the night Turkish policemen tortured him on the street, gouging out an eye and left him for dead on a smouldering fire. Now he is fighting for justice.
Yaman, 38 — a minibus driver hurrying home from work — was trying to avoid the demonstrations when he ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I walked fast to get home. The street was empty at that moment. Only one [water cannon] was there, waiting,” he said.
The jet of water hit him without warning, followed by a teargas canister to his stomach, from very close range.
“I doubled over, I could not breathe,” Yaman said. “Then around five policemen were coming toward me, but I was unable to move.”
The police officers started to beat and repeatedly hit him on his head and face and he fell to the floor.
“They continued hitting me very hard, with their batons, with their fists and I am not sure what else. Then one of them gouged my eye out with something sharp. It just burst and started bleeding,” he said.
Yaman speaks slowly, with a soft voice. According to his forensic medical report, the police broke several bones in his skull, chin and jaw. Six months later, he still speaks with difficulty.
“I could hear one of them say: ‘Let’s finish this one off,’” he said.
He says they dragged him about 40m toward a fire that was still smouldering on the street, the remains of a protesters’ barricade.
“They threw me into the fire and left me for dead,” Yaman said.
For several minutes he lay in the fire, he said, too afraid to stir.
“The water cannon was only a few meters away from me, I could hear the motor, hear them talk. I was afraid that if I moved, they would just run me over,” he said.
Six months later, the scars still testify to the severe burns on his back.
When the policemen finally left, Yaman tried to drag himself out of the fire. With the help of some protesters he succeeded and they took him to the local hospital.
There he did not dare tell the doctors what had happened to him, he said.
“I told them that I had been attacked by some guys in the street and that they had run away. There were rumors that hospitals had received orders not to treat anyone involved in the protests. I was afraid. There were policemen there. I did not trust them. What if they would make me disappear?,” he said.
Yaman’s story is one of many to emerge from Turkey’s summer of revolt, which quickly snowballed into one of the biggest challenges to the 10-year rule of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“The Gezi protests were an eruption of anger over continuous pressure by a government that did not listen to people’s problems,” said Yaman, who though never a protester was sympathetic to the cause.
“I have been self-employed as a driver. It was hard to make ends meet. Everything became more expensive, the petrol, everything. I think many people just erupted over these problems,” he said.
Two weeks after the revolt started, police forces violently evicted the protesters from Gezi Park. The Turkish government consented not to build a planned shopping mall in one of the last green spaces in the center of the city, but quickly went on to crush most dissent. Many of those who had supported, reported on or even tweeted the protests lost their jobs; some were prosecuted.