ANKARA – A Turkish court sentenced a police officer to eight years in prison on Wednesday for killing a protester during a wave of anti-government demonstrations in Turkey last year, the first policeman to be sentenced in connection with the unrest.
At least six people, including a police officer, died during the protests in 2013, which were sparked by a police crackdown on a small protest against the redevelopment of a park in Istanbul. The tough response to the protests by the then prime minister – Tayyip Erdogan – drew international condemnation and threatened to divide his ruling AK Party's government.
Officer Ahmet Sahbaz was found guilty of the voluntary manslaughter of Ethem Sarisuluk, 27, who was shot in the head during clashes with police in Ankara in June 2013. He died two weeks later in intensive care. On Wednesday, the judge said that Sahbaz was receiving an eight-year sentence based partly on his unjust provocation and good conduct.
In his final statement before the sentencing, the defendant had apologised to Sarisuluk's family and asked to be acquitted. He said he had fired his gun into the air as a warning to the protesters, who were throwing stones. Sahbaz's case was followed closely in Turkey although two national elections meant the Gezi movement, named after the Istanbul Park where the protests started, has taken a back seat.
Last October thousands of people angry that Sahbaz was allowed to give evidence via video-link instead of appearing in person, gathered outside the court in Ankara to protest before being dispersed by police with tear gas and water cannon.
On Wednesday, Turkish media reported that an unspecified number of protesters had gathered outside the courtroom amid a heavy police presence, but that no tear gas or water cannons had been deployed.
"I'm pleased to see that a police officer has been convicted because the general pattern in Turkey is impunity for these sorts of crimes," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, a senior researcher on Turkey at the Human Rights Watch. "The big question mark is whether the sentence is commensurate with the crime, as in Turkey you can get a seven-year sentence for just shouting a slogan at a protest.”
The Amnesty International – a human rights group – said they were still evaluating whether Sahbaz's sentence was reasonable but on Twitter some campaigners said the judge had been too lenient. "Police officer who killed Ethem Sarisuluk on purpose sentenced to 7 years. Students who protests for free education got 24 years," said one tweet.