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March 31: A Dark Day in Turkey's History

31 March, the Courthouse, Istanbul. Photo taken from Demotix, ID: 7257268

March 31, 2015 was an important day for Turkey. As a shock power cut left much of the country in darkness for the day, gunmen took hostage the prosecutor of a case concerning a boy killed during the 2013 Gezi protests and threatened to kill him if their demands for justice were not met. Following an intervention by the Turkish special forces, the hostage and two gunmen died. 

Blame blackouts on cats

When it came to explanations for the nationwide power cut that trended on Twitter, Turkish citizens were left well and truly in the dark.

Taksim metro station, closed due to power cut on March 31. Picture taken from Demotix. ID number: 7252045

Taksim metro station, closed due to power cut on March 31. Photo taken from Demotix. ID: 7252045

According to the Turkish Electricity Transmission Company (TEİAŞ), a nationwide blackout began at around 10.36 am due to transmission line problems along the Europe-Turkey power line. 

The Minister of Energy Taner Yıldız argued that the power cut might have been caused by an outage at a private company in the major city of Izmir, which created a domino effect. The minister then explained that this was only one of several possibilities and that he had to confirm the facts.

The Chamber of Electrical Engineers stated that some private energy companies did not want to sell electricity because of the low prices imposed by the government, and the power cuts might be the result of this standoff.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Davutoglu refused to rule out terrorism as a cause for the outage. So far officials have been unable to deliver a coherent statement on why so much of the country went dark for so long. 

The blackout affected transportation in major cities as the traffic lights went down and Istanbul's famous tramlines and subway stopped working. Schools, hospitals and factories ground to a halt.*

Think of a country, where electricity is cut off in every city. #BuradaElektrikYok

On Twitter, many people commented on the power cut under the hash tag #Buradaelektrikyok (There is no electricity here). While some tweets were critical, others speculated that it was sabotage by Istanbul's ubiquitous cats.

The cats meme referred to Taner Yıldız's explanation that a power cut last year was caused by cats entering a power distribution unit.

The cats that entered the power distibution unit have not received their payments. I think they are commiting sabotage for this reason. #BuradaElektrikYok

Turkey is under a cat invasion and their first act was a nationwide power cut. #BuradaElektrikYok (Picture reads: ‘First target: Power distribution units’)

While others mused that the disappearance of electricity had levelled the playing field between Turkey's rich and poor cities:

For the first time in history, the whole country lives under the same circumstances. #BuradaElektrikYok

The kidnap and murder of a prosecutor

But while the whole country was dealing with the inconvenience of the power cuts, a more serious piece of news broke.

Around 12:30, two men from the banned Revolutionary People's Party-Front (DHKP-C) — considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and the US — took the prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz hostage at his place of work in an Istanbul courthouse.

Kiraz was prosecutor for the Berkin Elvan case. Elvan was a 15-year-old boy hit by a police gas canister fired during the anti-government Gezi protests in 2013. Elvan was going out to buy bread at the time he was hit, but became a symbol of Ankara's violent crackdown on the rallies, especially after then-Prime Minister Recep Erdogan suggested he was linked to a terrorist group.

March 31, Turkish riot police taking position as Turkish special forces in Istanbul arrive at the courthouse where a Turkish prosecutor probing the politically sensitive death of an anti-government protester was taken hostage. -- Leftist militants have been killed after taking a prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz hostage at an Istanbul Court. Photo taken from Demotix, ID: 7257298

March 31, Turkish riot police taking position as Turkish special forces in Istanbul arrive at the courthouse. Photo taken from Demotix, ID: 7257298

Following the publication of a shocking photo in which a DHKP-C member posed with a gun held to the prosecutor's head, the group released their demands online and allowed three hours for their realisation.

Among the demands listed was the demand that Elvan's murderers be publicly named. After eight hours of fruitless negotiation, at around 20:30, gun shots and bombing sounds were heard from inside the courthouse.

The government later confirmed that two DHKP-C members and the prosecutor died during an intervention by special forces. 

During and the drama of the police raid on the courthouse, the media was locked down from broadcasting information about the kidnapping, a fact which led to the dissemination of confusing and inaccurate information via social networks.

Global Voices contributor Erkan Saka tried to cut through the confusion on his blog:

I was among many who did not appreciate such an action against the prosecutor…There are contradictory statements — as usual — and not much transparency but I believe the prosecutor was probably killed during the special-ops storming of the office. I wouldn’t be too surprised if the bullets that killed the prosecutor do belong to the security forces. During the evening, I was sure there would be an operation. Authoritarian governments like to show off. It is good election material. For us outsiders, on the other hand, it is so sad to see more citizens being killed today. …

On Twitter, people commented on the incident and how it was handled under the hash tags #BerkininKatilleriAcıklansın (Name Berkin's Killers) and #SavcıMehmetSelimKiraz (Prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz). The following two tweets clearly capture the tensions between different parts of society and the differing perceptions of the incident:

The murderers of #SavcıMehmetSelimKiraz are the police of this state. Just as the people who burned Serap Eseri [18-year old victim of a fire bomb attack on an Istanbul city bus six years ago] were the members of MIT [the Intelligence Service]. 

I am very sad to see that people have not defended #SavcıMehmetSelimKiraz as much as they have defended the terrorist group. WE HAVE BECOME SUCH A MEAN SOCIETY. I can't find anything to write.

Amid a tense atmosphere, Berkin Elvan's parents constantly tried to calm the situation. Elvan's father explained that the family had tried hard to avoid any possible injury to the prosecutor, and that he was saddened by all that had happened.

The army is let off

Also on March 31, the country learned of the collapse of a long-winded case involving 236 military men who were convicted of plotting a coup against the country's religiously conservative government in 2012 before being released in 2014 pending retrial. The so-called ‘Sledgehammer’ coup case has dominated Turkish headlines for years.

This Global Voices article was also an intermittent victim of the Turkish power cuts.

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