Armed gunmen take a state prosecutor hostage. After almost eight hours of negotiations, the standoff ends in a hail of gunfire leaving both hostage-takers and hostage dead. Instead of lamenting a police operation gone wrong, top government officials declare the outcome of the raid “a success.”
This may seem like a strange scenario, but it is precisely what happened on Tuesday, March 31 in Istanbul when two members of a far left terrorist organization took a state prosecutor hostage. The prosecutor had been responsible for compiling evidence in the case of Berkin Elvan, a young boy who was hit in the head with a tear gas canister during the 2013 Gezi protests and eventually died.
So why did Turkish officials, including the president and prime minister, appear to be relieved, almost happy, at the death not only of the terrorists but also of their victim? The various facets of this hostage crisis and the government response to it are numerous, complex, and will continue to be analyzed for weeks to come. One central aspect is the Elvan case itself.
Berkin Elvan had been sent by his parents to the store to get bread when he was caught up in a protest and hit in the head with a tear gas canister. He was only fourteen-years old. After lingering in a coma, Berkin died nine months later. His death reignited the indignation of government opponents and triggered protests. Then Prime Minister, now President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, reacted with vitriol and notoriously encouraged a crowd to boo Berkin’s family.
Berkin’s youth and innocence made his death an embarrassment for the government, while also making him the perfect martyr for the opposition.
As for the state prosecutor’s targeting, the hostage takers apparently had two objectives. First, they felt the prosecutor was not doing enough to build a case against the police officials who were suspects in Berkin’s death. Second, they wanted to publically expose the facts of the case and names of the suspects. The hostage takers did not believe the prosecutor, as an official of the state, would objectively discharge his duties and wanted to reveal what they believed to be missteps in the government’s handling of the case.
While their methods were indefensible and logic undeniably twisted, the hostage takers’ ostensible goal was to force transparency and speed up justice for Berkin Elvan and his family. By all accounts, however, the prosecutor was, in fact, faithfully investigating the case and asking hard questions about Berkin’s death. Now, he has been silenced, and the future prosecution of the case is uncertain.
But, this is not to suggest the incident was a government-driven conspiracy. Just because it ended to the government’s benefit does not mean Turkish officials masterminded anything.
Erdogan and the AKP government will certainly take advantage of the outcome of these events. The hostage taking has tainted the opposition’s ability to use the Berkin Elvan case as a rallying point. It has also helped justify the draconian national security package just passed by the Turkish parliament.
After all the grief protesters have caused the AKP government over the past two years, Erdogan and his circle are enjoying some schadenfreude as a result of this “successful” (from their point of view) ending to the crisis.