(Istanbul) – Police fired teargas canisters directly at protesters during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, turning them into dangerous projectiles that caused serious injuries, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch has documented 10 cases in which people were seriously injured, including loss of an eye, when police fired teargas canisters directly at them, often at close range. The scale and consistency of accounts of similar injuries recorded by local groups points to a clear pattern of misuse of teargas by Turkey’s police force.
The Turkish authorities should immediately issue improved guidelines on when and how teargas may be used that include a prohibition on firing teargas canisters in confined areas or directly at people. The authorities should strictly enforce the policy and hold accountable police officers who do not comply with the guidelines.
“Teargas canisters can inflict serious ‒ even life threatening ‒ wounds when fired directly at demonstrators, and that happened over and over again at Gezi Park,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The police and their commanders who used these canisters in such an irresponsible way should be held to account for inflicting unnecessary harm and endangering lives.”
On July 16, 2013, the European Court of Human Rights ruled (Abdullah Yaşa and Others v. Turkey application no. 44827/08) that improper firing of tear gas by Turkish police directly at protestors, injuring a 13 year old, had violated human rights, and called for stronger safeguards to minimize the risk of death and injury resulting from its use.
The policing of the Gezi protests began with the violent dispersal of peaceful demonstrators using excessive amounts of teargas and water cannon. This approach was repeated on numerous occasions and documented by Human Rights Watch. In addition to the people injured by teargas canisters and in other ways, four protesters and a police officer died from other causes in the course of the protests.
Human Rights Watch interviewed victims, witnesses, lawyers, and medical personnel about the teargas incidents. The ten documented cases are among the dozens that local medical and human rights groups recorded of people with serious head or upper body injuries caused by teargas canisters fired from launchers.
Although teargas is normally not a lethal weapon, it can cause serious medical problems for people exposed to it, even when it is used with restraint. As a riot control method, teargas should only be used where necessary as a proportionate response to quell violence.
International guidelines such as the UN Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms stipulate that the police are expected to use discretion in crowd control tactics to ensure a proportionate response to any threat of violence, and to avoid exacerbating the situation.
In addition to firing teargas canisters directly at protesters during the Gezi Park protests, police fired teargas in huge quantities into confined spaces, a hotel, a hospital, and makeshift health clinics in contravention of police guidelines. They used pepper spray on people who posed no threat and directed a water cannon at a hotel and a hospital entrance.
Police also fired plastic bullets at protesters. The Medical Association had documented 11 cases up to June 27 in which people lost an eye as a result of being hit by plastic bullets or a teargas canister. On June 19, Milliyet newspaper reported that the police had used 130,000 teargas canisters over three weeks, almost its entire supply.
Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of a circular issued on June 26 by the Interior Ministry with procedures for use of force by law enforcement authorities against unauthorized demonstrations, focusing in particular on the use of teargas. The circular includes guidelines on the need for advance direction and coordination by senior officers in the Rapid Deployment Force and Security Branch in preparing to police demonstrations. Senior officers are instructed to keep records of the volume of teargas used.
It also instructs police to warn demonstrators before firing teargas, to use water cannon before teargas, and to avoid targeting enclosed spaces, schools, hospitals, care homes, and people not participating in the demonstration. However, the circular says nothing about directly targeting protesters at close range, a major cause of the most serious teargas-related injuries during the demonstrations.
“While the circular is a step in the right direction, its major shortcoming is that it does not prohibit using teargas canisters as a weapon to injure protesters by directly firing at them,” Sinclair-Webb said.
Ahmet Şık, a Turkish journalist who covered many of the protests in Istanbul, told Human Rights Watch: “Some policemen fired the teargas canisters in a correct way, but most of them fired them directly at the protesters, often from close range.”
On June 11, a teargas canister hit Şık’s helmet, which he had used when covering Iraq as a reporter. “Were it not for the helmet I would have been in a coma now like some of the other victims ‒ in the best case scenario,” he said.
In response to Human Rights Watch inquiries, a spokesman for the police union, Emniyet-Sen, said police are trained in how to use teargas and teargas launchers and that the incorrect use of teargas during the policing of the Gezi protests “was not an issue of training but an issue of not being able to analyze the situation.”
He said that excessively long working hours, exhaustion, lack of experience, and messages from high-ranking officers and authorities contributed to abuses.
Dr. Hüseyin Demirdiken of the Turkish Medical Association told Human Rights Watch that after seeing so many injuries resulting from teargas canisters hitting people in the head and upper body, he concluded that, “the aim was not only to disperse the crowds, but also to punish.”
Throughout the Gezi Park protests, the prime minister and other senior government officials failed to encourage restraint and dialogue, or to acknowledge the right to peaceful assembly. Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdoğan referred to the protesters as “hooligans” (çapulcu) in speeches on June 2 and June 9. He defended the police response with such comments as, “We will not feed our police to them [the protesters]” and, “Should we have left the squares to anarchists and terrorists?”
Occasional government admissions that use of force had at times been excessive did not stop abusive policing tactics. At a speech to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) parliamentary group on June 18, Erdoğan said that the police had “passed the democracy test,” and that police powers and powers to intervene would be increased.
Turkey has a poor record on holding the police and security forces accountable for abuses, excessive use of force, torture and other ill-treatment, and unlawful killings, as Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented.
Specifically in the context of peaceful protests, the European Court of Human Rights has on at least three occasions expressed concern about Turkish police use of harmful gases such as teargas and pepper spray. It ultimately held Turkey responsible for injuries in each case and concluded that there had been a violation of the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment.
“Following the Gezi protests, there needs to be a full public inquiry into policing tactics, decision-making, and the chain of command ‒ reaching to the top,” Sinclair-Webb said. “Prosecuting abuses by individual junior officers will not be enough to deter the police from doing the very same thing in the future.”
Background - Teargas canister injuries: Interviews with Human Rights Watch
Burak Ünveren, 31, interviewed in Istanbul on June 10
On June 1, a teargas canister fired from close range struck Burak Ünveren, 31, in the left eye, causing him to lose the eye.
Ünveren, a university lecturer in the economics department of Yıldız Technical University, said he left his home in the Beşiktaş district of Istanbul and walked down the street where protests were under way:
I walked for about three minutes and came face to face with the police. Suddenly I realized I had been shot with a teargas bomb. I fell down, I never lost my consciousness. Some people I didn’t know came and saved me, simply grabbed me, found a car and took me to a hospital. The second protester who grabbed me said “Look at my face, boy, you have lost your eye. I also don’t have one of my eyes. Life continues with one eye.” Hearing this has helped me a lot.
Ünveren said he had been in a ward in the Şişli Etfal Hospital with three other people who had similarly lost eyes as a result of injuries caused by police firing teargas canisters directly at the crowd:
I would guess that the police were around forty meters away from me when they fired at me. I am almost sure that this act of violence was deliberate. I know this for two reasons. I know the police have to fire teargas canisters at 45 degrees and that they did not do that. Secondly, there were several protesters shot in their faces in the same way as I was shot. I therefore believe that shooting in this way directly at people is a systematic policy of the Turkish police.
Aydın Doruk, 48, interviewed in Istanbul on June 27
On June 16, a teargas canister fired from close range struck Aydın Doruk, 48, in the forehead.
Doruk, a graphic designer, said he had participated in several of the recent protests in Istanbul. “I was fed up with the prime minister’s speeches. Gezi Park is important to us. We used to walk there with our children. Instead of calming down the situation, the prime minister just made it worse, more violent.”
On June 15, police attacked protesters in Taksim Square, forcing them to retreat to other places. Doruk continued protesting in the Harbiye neighborhood, where protesters had set up improvised barricades from trash cans and whatever else they could find in the street.
Around 9 a.m. the next morning, Doruk said, 16 police came from Taksim down the main street. He said that when the police attacked, the protesters usually retreated. But when Doruk and others tried to retreat into a smaller street, police blocked both exits:
About 10 policemen with teargas launchers came towards us from the back of the street and we couldn’t go back to the main street. When they were 5 to 10 meters away, one of them shot me straight in the forehead. There was no warning. They just opened up with teargas fire. There was thick smoke everywhere. People were desperate to flee the teargas. It was so painful. It felt like I flew several meters backwards, but four women caught me and prevented me from falling.
Doruk’s wife told Human Rights Watch that she went to the hospital where he was taken:
There were many other people with similar wounds there. One girl had been hit with a canister in her side. One man had a serious wound in the back of his head from a teargas canister.
Doruk was in the hospital for 10 days:
The doctors said that I will have a permanent indent in my forehead. I might have permanent problems with my sinuses and eyesight, but only time and more tests will tell. I often become dizzy and feel pain, so I am on pain medication. My greatest concern is whether I will be able to go back to work. For now, I get headaches when I look down at my desk.
It is not important that one policeman gets punished. They just follow orders. But the prime minister and the government should be judged for these crimes. Those who gave the orders, the police directorate, should be punished.
Ergin Şahin, 49, interviewed in Istanbul on June 27
On June 1, a teargas canister fired from close range struck Ergin Şahin, 49, a phone operator in a hospital in Istanbul, breaking his leg just above the ankle.
When large-scale protests broke out on June 1, one of Şahin’s friends suggested that they go out and participate in the protests in the Harbiye neighborhood:
There were lots of people out in the street. It was like a human flood. Some were sitting, some were wearing gas masks improvised from plastic water bottles. None of the protesters were aggressive at all.
Around 1:30 p.m., he said, a water cannon vehicle (Toplumsal Olaylara Müdahalesi Araçı,TOMA) and numerous policemen suddenly entered the street. He said that 10 to15 of the policemen had teargas launchers and that they were shooting straight at the protesters:
I turned my back to the police. Something hit my leg. It suddenly went numb and I fell to the ground. There was teargas everywhere and my only thought was where could I go to survive. I was crawling on the ground, swimming in a thick cloud of teargas.
Şahin managed to find the door to a shop. The people inside let him in and called an ambulance:
I only discovered that my leg was broken when I got into the shop. The bones were sticking out and my foot was dangling. Initially I didn’t feel much pain, but I was screaming like a hound when they took me to the ambulance.
He has a metal support brace on his lower leg. He said his doctors have told him that he will have to wear the brace for six months and that he will need another operation after that.
Sedat Yılmaz, 28, interviewed in Istanbul on June 27
On June 2, a teargas canister fired from close range struck Sedat Yılmaz, 28, in the face, breaking his nose.
Yılmaz had gone to Taksim square with his girlfriend. Around 11 p.m. they decided to head home. When they got to the Dolmabahçe area of Istanbul, they could smell teargas in the air. They got stuck for about 10 minutes because of the huge crowds. People were chanting that the government needed to resign, he said. There were many policemen standing about 15 meters from him. He said that some protesters threw stones at the police:
Suddenly the police opened fire with their teargas launchers and the air was filled with teargas. I turned toward the police and saw a policeman pointing a launcher toward me. He fired and for a split second I could see the canister coming toward me with smoke coming out of it.
The teargas canister hit him in the face, breaking his nose and cutting a deep slash in his cheek. “It wasn’t that painful,” he said. “But my head was buzzing and there was a lot of blood coming from my nose and cheek.” His girlfriend took him to the Dolmabahçe mosque, where he received first aid. He said he spent five days in the hospital.
Hasan Kılıçgedik, interviewed in Istanbul on June 28
On June 16, a teargas canister fired from close range hit Hasan Kılıçgedik, 30, on the forehead, causing a 4.5 centimeter fracture to his skull and breaking his nose.
Kılıçgedik works with his father for a construction firm. He said he had been in Gezi Park on the evening of June 15 when police forcibly evacuated the park, using teargas and water cannon. After the 9 p.m. evacuation, protests against the police continued in the surrounding streets throughout the night:
It was 6.30 a.m. on June 16 and I was near Harbiye [neighborhood]. There was a dense cloud of teargas. Two police with blue helmets and carrying shields approached us and one shot directly at me from a distance of about 7 meters. The gas canister hit me and bounced off my forehead. Two people grabbed me as I fell backward and I was taken to hospital.
I believe the police approached me and knowingly targetted me at close range. I witnessed the police shoot another individual in the face with a plastic bullet. He was next to me and his chin was bleeding.
Umur Can Erşahin, interviewed in Istanbul on June 25
On June 1, a teargas canister fired from close range hit Umur Can Erşahin, 27, on the left side of his head.
When Erşahin, who works as a hip-hop instructor, went to Taksim square that evening, he said, no police were there and people were celebrating and singing. When he heard that police and protesters were clashing in Beşiktaş, he went there to see what was happening. He became stuck between the police and protesters as the police attacked:
There were perhaps 150 to 200 policemen there and several water cannon trucks. They came rushing toward us, pointing their teargas launchers straight at us. Suddenly, when the police were maximum 20 meters away, there was teargas all around me. They fired perhaps 30 teargas canisters in a few seconds. I turned to run away. But after just a few steps a teargas canister hit me in the head.
I fell to the ground. After the initial pain I couldn’t feel much, but I couldn’t hear or move my body. I kept thinking that I should not lose consciousness.
Two friends eventually dragged him to a small street, where they managed to get into a hotel through a back door. There, a medical student cleaned his injury and stopped the bleeding. Erşahin said he struggled to stay conscious.
An ambulance eventually took him to a hospital, where doctors told him that he had a fractured skull and minor intracranial bleeding. He was in the hospital for five days. He said that he still feels dizzy and that the doctors have told him that it will take another three or four months for him to recover fully.
Okan Göçer, 23, interviewed in Istanbul on June 28
On June 1, a teargas canister struck Okan Göçer, 23, in the head, causing a 7-8 centimeter fracture to the left side of the skull.
A factory worker from Kocaeli, a province neighboring Istanbul, Göçer had participated in May Day protests in Taksim square since 2005. Around 2:30 p.m. on June 1, he was in the street near the British Consulate, several hundred meters from Taksim square. He said there was a heavy police presence and although the police had not used teargas yet in that area, people on the street smelled it in the air:
There were so many policemen there. They were like an army. I was just five or six meters away from them, but I encouraged people to not hide or run. None of the protesters were violent. If the police didn’t shoot at us, we didn’t do anything to them either. That was our principle.
His aunt, who was in the same area, agreed: “It was a festive atmosphere.”
Suddenly about ten policemen with teargas launchers appeared, each protected by three others, Göçer said:
They just popped out. There were no warnings. They just attacked right away. There were many shots ‒ they just opened fire. One of them hit me in the head. I think the police might have targeted me because I encouraged people to stay.
He does not remember the shot that hit him or what happened afterward, and a medical report reviewed by Human Rights Watch confirms that he was unconscious when he arrived at the hospital. Doctors told his relatives to prepare for the worst. He underwent emergency surgery for a fracture to the front of the skull, and doctors kept him in an induced coma for more than two weeks. After he woke up he gradually improved and was released from the hospital.
Three days later, however, his family took him back because of his pain and several infections. He was still in the hospital when Human Rights Watch interviewed him and his family on June 28, almost four weeks after the incident.
Doctors have told him and his family that he will probably have no permanent damage, but he said he struggles with the pain and that the incident has changed him:
I don’t feel okay. I used to be cheerful and full of hope and optimism, but I don’t feel that way anymore. My eyes and head don’t feel right.
Seçil Sucu, 21, interviewed in Istanbul on June 25
On June 3, a teargas canister fired from close range struck Seçil Sucu, 21, just above her left eye.
Sucu had been participating in protests in the Dolmabahçe area at about 3 a.m. She said that football supporters had brought an earth-mover vehicle from near the İnönü stadium, and that they drove it toward a police water cannon vehicle. At some point the earth-mover caught fire, but when she tried to leave the area by a side-street, it was blocked by police and she had to return to the main street:
We were blocked in. When I turned to see how far away the police were, one policeman rushed toward me, aiming at me with his teargas launcher. He was perhaps 10 meters away. There was no place for me to hide so the only thing I could do was to try to protect my head. I had started to turn away when the teargas canister hit my goggles, breaking them. My head was ringing and then all went quiet and white. I thought that this is how people die.
Several people grabbed her and tried to help her get away, but the police kept beating them, she said: “My goggles were filling up with blood and I don’t really remember what happened in the end.”
She said that medical reports said she had a six-centimeter fracture in her skull and that she had been told it would take months to recover fully:
I am afraid to stay at home alone and I have had panic attacks. I am constantly afraid that a hit on my head will open the fracture and I will die.
Berkin Elvan, 14, whose family was interviewed in Istanbul on June 26
On June 16, Berkin Elvan, 14, who had just finished eighth grade, sustained serious head injuries from what was probably a teargas canister shot from close range.
He lives in the Okmeydanıneighborhood in Istanbul with his parents and two sisters. On June 15, he and his family went out to participate in the protests in the neighborhood. “The entire neighborhood was out on the streets,” said his father, Sami Elvan.
Toward morning the family went home and while his mother was making breakfast, Berkin went out to get bread from a bakery nearby, his father said:
Suddenly somebody rang the door. People outside were shouting that Berkin’s head is broken and that we should come down immediately. When I went out there was thick teargas and there were police in the street. It was hard to see what was happening. Berkin’s friends had already taken him to the hospital. By the time we arrived at the hospital he was already in surgery.
Evrim Deniz Karatana, Berkin’s lawyer, said one witness saw that the police hit Berkin with a teargas canister from 10 to15 meters away. Deniz Karatana said the medical report says that Berkin was hit by a hard object. His skull was fractured and he suffered from intracranial bleeding. She said the doctors told her that Berkin smelled of gunpowder, which they believed was an indication of close-range fire. Berkin’s father said:
We are desperate and barely holding up. I don’t want to go back home because my son is not there. He is still in an induced coma, but we never lose our hope. He is fighting. I am sure he will recover.
Berkin remains in a critical condition.
Lobna Allamii, 34, whose friend and family member were interviewed in Istanbul on June 28
On May 31, Lobna Allamii, 34, sustained serious head injuries during a teargas attack by the police in Taksim square. While Human Rights Watch has not been able to conclusively determine how she was injured, the circumstances and the nature of her injuries point to a teargas canister fired from close range as the cause.
Allamii was in Istanbul to visit friends and renew her visa for Germany where she had been working for a few months. Upset about the government’s plans for Gezi Park, she joined a sit-in protest in Taksim square on May 31. Hülya Ertaş who was at the square with Allamii, said that 500 people had gathered for a peaceful protest and that none of the protesters engaged in any form of violence.
Suddenly and without warning, Ertaş said, police attacked them with water cannons and teargas. Allamii and Ertaşran toward the center of the square, away from the attack. When crossing a low fence, however, they lost sight of each other. After some time ‒ Ertaş doesn’t remember how long ‒ she saw a body on the ground near a line of policemen who were blocking one of the exits from the square:
Suddenly I realized that it was Lobna. I ran up to her. After a couple of seconds she started having seizures. I called out to the police for help and we managed to get her into a nearby ambulance. I didn’t see what happened to her, but when I first saw her, the police were standing only 10 or12 meters away and there were teargas canisters on the ground still spewing gas.
Video of the police attack, including of Allamii lying on the ground, is consistent with what Ertaş told Human Rights Watch.
Allamii’s sister, Fatin Allamii, said the doctors told her that Lobna had arrived at the hospital unconscious with a fractured skull and severe injury on the left side of her head. They first operated on the left side. Less than 24 hours later, intracranial bleeding on the right side necessitated another operation. Fatin Allamii said the nature of the injuries and intracranial bleeding on both sides indicated that Lobna had been hit by a hard, moving object.
She was kept in an induced coma for 24 days. Doctors have told her sister that the injuries are no longer life-threatening. They believe that Lobna will regain her hearing and the movement in her right arm, which has been partially paralyzed, though it is too early to tell whether she will make a full recovery of her speech and eyesight, both of which were damaged.