KAYSERI, Turkey : Four policemen went on trial in Turkey amid heavy security on Monday, accused of beating to death a 19-year-old student in huge anti-government protests that rocked the country last June. The high-profile court case comes as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan battles his biggest crisis in 11 years in power, which has hit the economy and is threatening the strongman’s presidential ambitions.

Some 2,000 riot police were deployed in the central city of Kayseri for the start of the trial, 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. Ali Ismail Korkmaz died after being pummelled with baseball bats and truncheons in the western city of Eskisehir on June 2, one of six people to perish as three weeks of protests convulsed the country of 76 million.

The brutal attack was recorded by security cameras and the young man, wearing a “World Peace” T-shirt, suffered a brain haemorrhage and died after 38 days in a coma.

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 eight defendants, four of whom are plain-clothes police.

“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 at the defendants. “Have you no shame?”

The dead student’s brother is a lawyer, and around 300 of his colleagues were in Kayseri on Monday, plus 50 working on the case, seeking to turn it into a damning trial of the government as a whole.

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.

More than 8,000 people were injured, the Turkish Medical Association says, during the protests in June that began as a peaceful sit-in against plans to build on a Istanbul park.

Erdogan called the demonstrators “vandals” and a heavy-handed police response saw tear gas, plastic bullets and even live ammunition used.

Amnesty International said there were “gross human rights violations” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel - hosting Erdogan in Berlin this Tuesday - at the time called the police response “much too harsh”.

Apart from a trial that began last year of a policeman - facing five years - for allegedly shooting dead a demonstrator, cases of police facing justice over the unrest have been rare.

The first case involving demonstrators, meanwhile, is expected soon, with 255 of the several thousand arrested expected to be tried in a first wave, some on “terrorism” charges.

‘Dirty’ conspiracy

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.

His handling of the crisis, and also of last year’s unrest, have dented Erdogan’s hitherto high popularity ahead of important local elections on March 30 when key cities including Ankara and Istanbul are up for grabs.

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 in recent months, including on Monday after inflation data stoked fears about the economy.

This is despite a hike in interest rates last week sharply criticised by Erdogan as endangering growth.