KAYSERI, Turkey: Four Turkish policemen on Monday denied beating to death a 19-year-old student in mass anti-government protests that rocked the country last June, as they went on trial amid heavy security.
The high-profile murder case comes as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan battles his biggest political crisis in 11 years in power, which has hit the economy and is threatening the strongman's presidential ambitions.
"I had my truncheon but not a baseball bat, as claimed by the prosecution," Savan Gekvunar, head of the police unit accused of killing Ali Ismail Korkmaz on June 2, told the court in Kayseri, central Turkey.
"I took part in no arrest and I didn't hit anyone... I wasn't there when the events took place."
His colleague Mevlut Saldogan, accused of administering a kick to the head that caused Korkmaz a brain haemorrhage, also denied the charges, saying: "I only poked him with my foot."
A third, Huseyin Engin, said: "I don't even know what you are talking about. I was in a different street where my superiors had ordered me to contain the crowd."
The fourth, Yalcin Akbulut, also rejected the charges. Four other men, who are not police, were also on trial over the incident.
In an attack captured by security cameras, Korkmaz was pummelled with baseball bats and truncheons in the western city of Eskisehir and died after 38 days in a coma.
He was one of six people to perish as three weeks of protests that began as a sit-in against plans to build on an Istanbul park convulsed the country of 76 million, spiralling into nationwide anti-government unrest.
More than 8,000 people were injured in the demos, the Turkish Medical Association says.
Erdogan called the demonstrators "vandals" and police used tear gas, plastic bullets and, according to Amnesty International, even live ammunition on the demonstrators. Thousands were arrested.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- hosting Erdogan in Berlin this Tuesday -- at the time called the police crackdown "much too harsh".
Some 2,000 riot police were deployed in the central city of Kayseri for the start of the trial on Monday. Roads around the courthouse were blocked and demonstrations banned for "security" reasons.
Activists said buses carrying demonstrators were prevented from entering the city. Several hundred people made it through, however, marching, waving flags, carrying banners and chanting for justice for Korkmaz.
The trial opened in a packed courtroom with the student's tearful mother Emel Korkmaz clutching a photo of her son and shrieking at the policemen in the dock.
"I sent my son to Eskisehir to study and he gets delivered back to me in a coffin. We are here to demand justice, nothing but justice," she said.
"How can you kill my Ali?", she shouted. "Have you no shame?"
The defendants, five of whom have been in custody since last year, are charged with crimes including premeditated murder and prosecutors on Monday called for sentences between 10 years and life behind bars.
Erdogan, 59, co-founder of the powerful Justice and Development Party (AKP), is now battling even bigger problems since a corruption scandal erupted in December implicating his inner circle and their families.
He has sacked hundreds of police and prosecutors and accuses supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a friend-turned-foe Islamic preacher exiled in the United States, of waging a "dirty" conspiracy to topple him.
On Monday he said there were "parallel structures" in the Turkish state apparatus that wanted to undermine his government.
His handling of the graft scandal, and also of last year's unrest, have dented his popularity ahead of important local elections on March 30.
A poor result could scupper Erdogan's hopes of being elected president -- he cannot run for another term as prime minister -- in August.
Worries about Erdogan's stewardship have also contributed to the lira falling dramatically in recent weeks, which prompted the central bank to hike interest rates last week, to little avail.