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.
The Turkish Chamber of Medical Doctors said the protests had a heavy human toll: about 8,000 were injured, 104 sustained serious head injuries and 11 people lost an eye, most through plastic bullets fired by the police. Five people died, at least three as a result of police violence.
Yaman was lucky to survive. He underwent surgery and had to stay in the hospital for two weeks.
“The doctors told my family to prepare for the worst. They were not sure if I would survive,” he said.
His wife Nihal, 31, puts her hand on his.
“It’s a miracle that he is still alive,” she said.
However, his life will never be the same. He lost one eye, and only retains 20 percent eyesight in the other. Besides a broken nose, cheekbone, forehead and chin, his skull was fractured from the top of his head down to his jaw. He will have to undergo four additional surgeries over the next year.
A LOSS OF TRUST
As a self-employed minibus driver, Yaman does not have health insurance. He will never work in his profession again. He takes antidepressants, suffers from insomnia and, when he does find sleep, has incessant nightmares.
“People have been very supportive,” Nihal said. “We have received a lot of help, but we don’t know how things will be next year. We are very worried.”
So far, the family has paid about 50,000 Turkish lira (US$23,200) for medical care alone. She said it had been hard on the whole family, especially their daughters, aged seven and 13.
“Our younger daughter used to be very good in school. She never put down her pen or her books, but after this happened, she could not concentrate any more. She cried all the time,” Nihal said.
Yaman now hopes for justice.
“We will do everything we can until they find these [men]. It’s not a trivial thing to play with another person’s life like that. Nobody will be able to bring back the eye lost, but I hope they are brought to justice and punished for what they did,” he said.
He has filed a complaint on grounds of attempted murder.
“They didn’t just slap me around a bit. They tortured me. They tried to kill me. And all of those who did that are still working. Every time I walk past a policeman I wonder: Was it maybe him?” Yaman said.
A local resident filmed part of the attack on a mobile phone camera. The footage shows several riot police officers close to a water cannon dragging a man toward a fire.
“How can they not find these officers?” Yaman said. “They have deployment lists, the date, the time, and the location. They have the registration number of the water cannon. What else do they need?”
Istanbul prosecutors announced an official investigation into police violence during the protests, but so far without tangible results. While hundreds of protesters have since been indicted for various offences such as violating public demonstrations law or insulting the police, examination of police violence during the Gezi protests has been slow and inconclusive, Turkey researcher for Amnesty International Andrew Gardner said.
“Six months on, with no progress in the majority of investigations into abuses highlighted in the Amnesty International report, it is looking more and more likely that the vast majority of police abuses will go unpunished,” he said.
Yaman said that he has not given up hope that his attackers will be found. However, his trust in his country has been shattered.
“It is impossible for me to trust this state. It has been six months since this happened to me. How can I trust the people who tried to kill me and who ruined my life? However, I am not afraid anymore. I have lived through this, what comes afterward is not important,” he said.
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