Minibuses under scrutiny in Turkey after Özgecan Aslan murder

Minibuses under scrutiny in Turkey after Özgecan Aslan murder

Drivers of minibuses, a popular means of mass transit in Turkey, are under fire following the murder of a 20-year-old girl by a driver who is accused of taking advantage of a lone passenger. The government plans to install panic buttons in minibuses and monitor the vehicles closely.

Özgecan Aslan, 20, a university student traveling alone on a minibus in the southern Turkish province of Mersin, was killed by Suphi Altındöken, the vehicle's driver. Altındöken is accused of burning the young woman's corpse after the murder and attempted rape. The incident has sparked public anger over violence toward women.

The heinous crime paved the way for debate on how to tackle violence and whether the capital punishment should be reinstated. Four days after the detention of the perpetrator and his accomplices, Turkish public now debates the safety of minibuses or rather, safety of passengers who have to travel in an empty minibus except for the driver, especially at night.

Vatan daily reported that the government plans tighter regulations on the operation of minibuses following the murder. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu had announced earlier that they would mobilize to end violence against women. According to the report in Vatan, a series of measures will be introduced initially including the installation of panic buttons in minibuses, as well as other means of mass transit and taxis. The button, which will be installed in a spot easily accessible by passengers, will alert security forces when pressed.

All minibuses will also be obliged to install GPS devices to enable their tracking. When they deviate from their pre-defined routes, drivers will be warned and alerted by police when necessary. The government also mulls implementing more severe prison terms for sex offenses.

Minibuses are widely popular in the country struggling with a traffic congestion problem. They are viewed as the lesser of two evils for people forced to choose between overcrowded public buses and equally crowded minibuses as they offer a faster travel, especially on crooked, narrow streets in big cities. For smaller cities like Mersin, minibuses offer an alternative to buses as bus services are seldom usually in the evening.

Nevertheless, traveling in a bus or minibus at night presents a challenge to women according to accounts shared on social media. Women who took to Twitter under the hashtag #sendeanlat (tell your story) shared stories of harassment by drivers while traveling after dark.

Three incidents involving drivers in the past nine years justify fears. In 2010, a 14-year-old girl was raped in a school bus she was traveling alone by the driver in the city of Sakarya. In 2006, a woman traveling alone on a minibus in Istanbul was sexually assaulted by the minibus driver and in 2014, a high school student was raped by the school bus driver in the northern city of Ordu. The driver in the last incident was detained earlier for sending harassing text messages to female students but was released and continued to work as school bus driver.

Özgecan Aslan had argued with her killer when the 26-year-old driver took an alternative route from Tarsus, a district of Mersin, to the central province. Suphi Altındöken claimed they "engaged in a fight" and he stabbed the young girl before clubbing her to death with an iron bar.

Minibus drivers have national occupation standards but passengers complain few comply with them. According to standards defined by a federation of associations overseeing commercial drivers, minibus drivers are required to comply with a set of rules in terms of traffic safety and relations with passengers. They are required to alert the administrators of minibus stations when they take detours.

Moreover, minibus drivers are supposed to be skilled people without anger management issues and with good communications skills with passengers. Yet, the public's complaints heap up on rude and argumentative drivers ignoring traffic rules and the safety of their passengers.

Koray Öztürk, chairman of Chamber of Istanbul Minibus Operators, says they are "disturbed" by media reports stressing the killer's occupation. Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Öztürk said their chamber subjects minibus drivers to a meticulous process of monitoring before their employment. "We ask for a health report, a mental health report and a criminal record if he has any, before issuing permits to drivers," he said.

Öztürk said they installed cameras and GPS devices on 20 percent of minibuses in Istanbul and would have them installed in all vehicles soon. He said heavy fines were issued to drivers deviating from their routes. The chairman says Altındöken's minibus was operating between a district outside the central province and central Mersin and such vehicles lacked safety measures unlike those operating in inner city districts. "Such minibuses can be operated once you set up a small association with a couple of minibus operators and they usually ignore the regulations for minibuses operating in cities," he says.

Indeed, Veysel Sarı, the head of an association of commercial drivers in Mersin, admitted that the murderer did not have a license to operate the minibus on the route. He said that the authority to monitor the drivers lay with local administrators. "We need new regulations so that the drivers will be subject to a set of inspections to determine their health status, drug addiction, mental health, criminal history et cetera," he said.

Altındöken was working for a small association of minibus drivers or cooperative. The head of the cooperative told reporters yesterday that Altındöken was employed by minibus owners from time to time. He said that they would install cameras and GPS devices on all their minibuses.

Behzat Altındöken, uncle of the suspect, told reporters yesterday that although they were estranged, he was aware of the condition of his nephew. "He stabbed his father on two separate occasions and used to beat his mother almost daily.

He was involved in a traffic accident in the past and he has been unstable ever since. I am amazed how he was allowed to work as minibus driver. After all, he underwent a major surgery and was mentally unstable. He was even exempted from [compulsory] military service due to his condition," the uncle said.

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