Riot police fire tear gas as they clash with protesters following the funeral of Uğur Kurt in Istanbul.

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Turkey’s deep political polarization has spilled over into violence once more. Thirty-year-old municipality worker Uğur Kurt died hours after being shot in the head as he waited to attend a funeral.

The fatal shooting took place in Okmeydanı, a working-class district in Istanbul where significant parts of the population are from the Muslim Alevi minority or are Kurdish. It is the site of regular anti-government protests, not least because it was here last summer that a police teargas canister struck 14-year-old Berkin Elvan, who died after months in a coma. 

As Kurt, who was not involved in last night’s protests, waited in the courtyard of Okmeydanı’s Alevi place of worship (cemevi), police shot teargas and water cannon at a small group of protesters who were lobbing Molotov cocktails in the streets nearby. Video footage and photographs indicate that after a Molotov cocktail tossed by a protester set fire to an armed vehicle, several plainclothes police officers resorted to live firearms and that this coincided with the shooting of Kurt. A second man, later identified as 42-year-old Ayhan Yılmaz also died, although the cause of death remains unclear.   

It’s critical the investigation into the fatal shooting of Kurt and the death of Yılmazbe conducted effectively and rapidly, and those responsible for criminal offenses be brought to justice. The fact that it took 26 hours before a prosecutor visited the scene where Kurt was shot does not bode well. Investigations and trials of the police for alleged killings during the Gezi protests last summer have proceeded slowly and have been highly flawed.

Turkey has a growing problem of police violence and excessive use of force in the street, whether or not directed against protesters.. Their resort to live fire in such situations is a recent and very disturbing phenomenon.  According to United Nations rules, police are entitled to use force when confronted with violence, but its use must be proportionate and aimed to address the situation at hand. Firearms may only be used when there is an imminent threat of death or serious injury.  And all deaths need to be promptly and impartially investigated.

To avoid spiralling violence, police restraint should be backed by political calls for calm. Instead the Turkish government has repeatedly defended the conduct of the police and showed little empathy for protesters or those caught in the crossfire.

“I can’t understand how the police can be so patient,” said Prime Minister Erdoğan today.  He offered no condolences to the family of a man who died paying his last condolences at a funeral.

As protests deteriorating into running battles between police and protesters look likely to continue this weekend in the wake of the mine tragedy and a year after the Gezi protests, the government should realize that stoking the politics of enmity will lead only to more deaths and deeper division.