It was a brutal way to make a point: On July 6, Erol Benzer, a 37-year-old father, walked up to the front door of a courthouse near Izmir, a resort city on Turkey’s Aegean coast, pulled out his government-issued pistol and fatally shot himself in the head.
In a final message posted on Facebook, Benzer, a 13-year veteran of the police force, wrote: “You, my colleagues, each deserve personal rights, human rights, human working and living conditions. Even police have the right of justice, of living and working as a human being. I am making myself a martyr for the sake of democracy. I hope mine will be the last police suicide.”
Benzer’s death came on the heels of a rash of police suicides during a month of intense anti-government protests across Turkey. The official response was grim, even for a country with a history of violently suppressing dissent. Tens of thousands of police officers were deployed on the streets of major cities, firing tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets at largely peaceful protesters in quantities that many consider illegal under international humanitarian law.
The results were effective, but came at a heavy cost. When the smoke settled, five protesters were dead and thousands more injured, with many losing eyes to rubber bullets and others left in comas after being hit in the head by tear-gas canisters.
Since the protests ended in late June, Istanbul has transformed from a city of summertime revelry to what looks like a police state. Anti-riot police remain deployed on the streets in and around Taksim Square, the epicentre of the protests, striking hammer blows to any attempts at reviving street action.
The effects on the officers themselves has been devastating: six suicides in a two-week span during the height of the protests—this in a country with an average yearly suicide rate among police of around 14 per 100,000 officers, according to the recently formed Turkish police union, Emniyet-Sen (the rate in the U.S. is 17 per 100,000). Even taking under-reporting into account, the Turkish rate remains significantly lower than in most Western countries. Taken in context, however, six suicides in two weeks is alarming.
“It shows just how dysfunctional the police services have become,” says Emrullah Aksakal, a former police officer turned lawyer and police activist. “What the police were expected to do during those protests was not humane. It pushed some officers over the edge.”
Indeed, the culture inside Turkey’s police services has gone from bad to worse since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power in 2002, Aksakal adds. Political interference, common throughout Turkey’s often-violent 90-year history, has reached frightening levels.
“It’s become unbearable,” says Atilla Aktin, a former officer in Istanbul. “It’s like the Indian caste system. The commanders at the top are all AKP men. We are overworked and expected to follow orders without question.”
Aktin, a founding member of the Emniyet-Sen, was booted from the force in 2010 on what he says were trumped-up terrorism charges. “I was found not guilty of those charges,” he says, “but I was never re-hired by the police. The issue wasn’t the terrorism charge—it was the union I was setting up.”
According to numerous Turkish police officers (many requesting anonymity) who spoke to Maclean’s, unionizing has become a cause célèbre, but it’s not something they want to discuss. Creating a police union is still illegal under Turkish law and currently there are 250 officers being investigated for union activities, according to Turkey’s Aydinlik newspaper.
For many of those officers, the actions on the streets during the protests represent their own private desires: more democracy, more human rights and the freedom to live with dignity. But none of that seems possible for the time being. Sporadic protests and potentially larger demonstrations appear to be the reality for Turkey in the near future. This week, protesters gathered again to challenge the AKP’s growing hubris, this time in response to lengthy prison sentences meted out to former military personnel, journalists and academics, all accused of being part of an organization intent on overthrowing the government.
Tear gas and rubber bullets are in the air again through the streets of Istanbul. And it may not be long before another Turkish officer, despite Erol Benzer’s wish to the contrary, will take his own life.