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Hanover decides against sign for teen shot by police

The city of Hanover has blocked one neighborhood's decision to name a square after a Kurdish teenager who was shot dead by police more than two decades ago. The fear is that such a move would stoke ethnic tensions.

Deutschland Gedenken an Halim Dener (Kampagne Halim Dener)

It's almost 23 years since a police officer killed 16-year-old Halim Dener in Hanover's Steintor pedestrian zone.

Dener, who was surprised by officers as he put up posters of the National Liberation Front of Kurdistan (ERNK), was shot in a tussle as he tried to get away. The ERNK was a subgroup of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has long been engaged in an armed conflict with the Turkish state and remains proscribed as a terror organization across Europe.

Read more: The Middle East's complex Kurdish landscape

What exactly happened on the night of June 30, 1994, is still unclear. The officer said he forced Dener, who was living in Germany under a false name, to the ground. In the scuffle that ensued, a shot was fired as the policeman tried to lift his weapon from the ground. The officer was acquitted.

Infografik Annual number of people killed by police bullets in Germany ENG

Members of Hanover's Kurdish community took the teenager's death to heart. Dener was also said to have been tortured by police in Turkey and to have had his village destroyed by authorities there. A campaign began for a memorial. "The bullet against Hamir Dener was a bullet against the Kurdish people," the main demonstration banner read.

Potential for conflict?

Calls grew louder following the 20th anniversary of Dener's death in 2014. Kurdish voices have been joined by those from left-wing German and German-Turkish political groups.

And this month the local council in Hanover's Linden-Limmer district voted in favor of naming a square on the city's Velvetstrasse (Velvet Street) in Deren's honor.

That decision was struck down by the city's council's administrative committee on Wednesday, however. Mayor Stefan Schostok said he had strongly disagreed with the decision, claiming that it would lead to an escalation of conflict between Turks and Kurds. Though the district has the right to name its streets, he said, officials should also take into account the wider interests of the city.

Deutschland Kurden gedenken Halim Deners 1994 (picture-alliance/dpa/W. Weihs)

'The bullet against Hamir Dener was a bullet against the Kurdish people,' the banner read

"There are demonstrations in memory of Halim Dener each year by Kurds and groups close to the PKK, and counterdemos by Turkish groups in Hanover," city spokesman Andreas Möser told DW. "There is always a high police presence to prevent riots. The demonstrations are, of course completely in order: We do have freedom of assembly in Germany. Nevertheless, every year, the conflict between some Kurds and other Turkish groups is evident."

"That is why the mayor and many others, including those sympathetic to the Kurds, are assuming that a  Halim Dener Square would be a place of constant conflict," Möser said. "This is not desirable. Memorials and dialog on the Kurdish issue must be peaceful."

'The predominant feeling'

Dirk Wittenberg, who has long campaigned for the memorial, said the city was caving to Turkish nationalists and the threat of violence from groups such as the Grey Wolves, a transnational Turkish terror organization.

"The talk is of course about confrontation between ethnic groups - it's always about Turks and Kurds - but you can put the kiss of death on things that way," Wittenberg told DW. "We are saying there is, of course, a political confrontation, but it's taking place between progressive left-wing groups and nationalists, including, in case of any doubt, groups like the Grey Wolves."

"I don't think anyone would arrive at the idea that they wouldn't name a square after victims of fascism because that would upset neo-Nazis," Wittenberg said.

Wittenberg has accused the city of trying to pretend that the killing never happened. Not only has it rejected the renaming of the street: It has also removed memorial stones to Dener that were placed at Steintor on two separate occasions.

"Kurds feel they are not taken seriously," Wittenberg said. "That's the predominant feeling. A memorial is simply a place that also shows there are people who take them seriously."

"The other thing is that it is, of course, for German society a place of examination - like other memorials - for reflection on how exactly it could be that a 16-year-old boy can, because he was pasting posters, end up being shot by the police and dead on the lying street," Wittenberg said.

Deutschland Gedenken an Halim Dener (Kampagne Halim Dener)

Halim Dener: Tortured. Escaped. Forbidden. Shot.

Read more: Police in Germany kill more than you think

An alternative renaming?

It is an issue that divides opinion within and outside the Turkish community. Those keen to rename the square say it's not about Dener's origin: It's simply to remember the fact that a 16-year-old was shot in the heart of the city. A counterargument runs that the teenager was promoting a listed terrorist organization.

Gabriele Steingrube, a Christian Democrat on the Linden-Limmer district council, is against renaming the square for Dener. "It cannot be the case that someone should be honored who was putting up posters for a terrorist organization," she said. Though she expressed regret that Dener had been killed, she said he was committing a crime and resisting arrest.

The Christian Democrats have lobbied to name the square after a Jewish couple from Hanover who were murdered by the Nazis at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

It doesn't seem that the matter of renaming the square will be resolved anytime soon.

"We'll see what happens," Wittenberg said. "The dispute isn't over. The city has said the neighborhood council should think about it again, but the whole thing could keep going if they decide the same thing. It would go back to the city and so on."

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