Şahin’s ‘healthy pepper gas’ remarks stir outcry

Şahin’s ‘healthy pepper gas’ remarks stir outcry

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
Şahin’s ‘healthy pepper gas’ remarks stir outcry

Riot police use pepper spray to disperse Turkish workers of the state tobacco company TEKEL who were protesting layoffs and the government’s labor policy as they clash with police in Ankara, Thursday, April 1, 2010. The workers say they will start a new strike if the government continues to refuse to grant them labor rights. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

The family of a young man who was died after being pepper gassed by police has spoken out in reaction to Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin’s recent remarks that pepper gas is “one hundred percent healthy, safe and qualified.”

“Pepper gas is so healthy that it can kill a man in minutes; anyone who suffers from a chronic disease such as asthma or cardiac problems can be killed with this weapon,” Özge Birben, the sister of Çayan Birben, who died from a pepper spray-induced asthma attack on May 31 in Yalova, told the Hürriyet Daily News yesterday over the phone.

Minister Şahin defended the use of pepper spray on Aug. 14 in response to a question from Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Mehmet Kesimoğlu.

“Pepper gas [OC] is completely natural and has no permanent effect on human health,” Şahin said in his reply. “The Istanbul University Medical Faculty Pharmacology and Clinical Pharmacology Department issued a report verifying that pepper gas is safe for use by police. And tear spray [CS] gas is used with a quality certificate from the producing company affirming that it is ‘not harmful to human health when applied by trained personnel.’ According to our records, there have been no reports of deaths resulting from gas canisters used by law enforcement agencies in Turkey.”

However the deaths of three men have been linked to the use of pepper gas by police in Turkey so far. In addition to Birben, Metin Lokumcu died of a heart attack after arguing with police while attending a protest in the Black Sea district of Hopa on May 30, 2011, and Hacı Zengin, a member of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), was died following exposure to pepper gas during Nevruz clashes in Istanbul on March 18, 2012.

Birben suffered an asthma attack and reportedly asked the police to stop using the gas, which they refused to do. “As part of the willful injury case, which is still open at the Yalova Public Prosecutor’s Office, the testimonies of witnesses and the police records reveal that Birben said ‘Stop it; I have asthma,’ after the police used pepper gas,” Şahin said.

Özge Birben said she and her daughter also suffer from asthma. “My mother forbade me even to talk to the police in case we argue and they use this weapon on me; I know they would kill me as well. My brother Çayan died due to the police using pepper gas, without a doubt,” she said. “We have filed criminal complaints against İdris Naim Şahin and the Yalova police department. But the state protects its men. Who are we to resist?”

Some dangerous drugs and tobacco are natural as well, said Turkish Medical Association (TTB) Chairman Özdemir Aktan, who has also criticized the minister’s remarks.

“What the minister said does not make sense,” he told the Daily News yesterday. “All medicines are created from herbs. But causing someone’s death is another matter. This pepper gas halts a person’s breathing and blocks the senses of sight and hearing, and when that person is someone who has a serious disease, this can absolutely kill him.”

Birben family’s lawyer, Melike Korkmaz, also agreed that pepper gas does not kill directly. But, she said, it can trigger a crisis in cases of chronic disease. “It might be ‘natural’ and ‘quality,’ who said it isn’t? But it has obviously caused many deaths in police interventions in Turkey. All the eyewitnesses said the same in the court records: that Çayan shouted that he had asthma, and the police kept on using [pepper gas].”

“What should Turkish people participating in protests do to keep the police from using pepper gas?,” Korkmaz asked. “Should all the protesters shout out their diseases, is that the only protection mechanism?”