Turkey protests spread after violence in Istanbul over park demolition
Demonstrations against Erdogan government in several cities as riot officers use tear gas to control protesters in Istanbul
Constanze Letsch in Istanbul
The Guardian, Saturday 1 June 2013
Turkey has been engulfed by a series of protests across several cities after riot police turned Istanbul's busiest city centre hub into a battleground, deploying tear gas and water cannon against thousands of peaceful demonstrators.
In one of the biggest challenges to the 10-year rule of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, demonstrators took to the streets of Ankara, Izmir, Bodrum and several other cities as well as Istanbul to vent their frustration at what is seen to be an increasingly authoritarian administration.
The air of government nervousness was reinforced by the relative lack of mainstream media coverage of the drama in central Istanbul, fuelling speculation that the Erdogan government was leaning on the main television stations to impose a blackout on the ugly scenes.
Following several days of dawn police raids on the protesters seeking to occupy Gezi park on Taksim Square in Istanbul city centre, the clashes escalated violently, leaving more than 100 people injured, several of them seriously.
Police went on the rampage against protesters who had been sitting reading books and singing songs.
Link to video: Turkey: Istanbul clashes rage as violence spreads to Ankara– video
There was widespread criticism of the heavy-handed intervention and of the government, which is committed to demolishing the park to erect a shopping centre.
The US state department said: "We certainly support universally peaceful protests, as we would in this case." In Brussels, MEPs called on the EU to act.
What started at the beginning of the week as an environmental protest aimed at saving an Istanbul city centre park from shopping centre developers backed by the government appeared to be snowballing into a national display of anger at the perceived high-handedness of the Erdogan government.
"They have declared war on us," said an Istanbul shopkeeper in a back street, as he handed out lemon juice to counter the teargas to protesters. "This is out of all proportion."
"Today is a turning point for the AKP," said Koray Caliskan, a political scientist at Istanbul's Bosphorus University. "Erdogan is a very confident and very authoritarian politician, and he doesn't listen to anyone anymore. But he needs to understand that Turkey is no kingdom, and that he cannot rule Istanbul from Ankara all by himself."
Ugur Tanyeli, an architecture historian, said: "The real problem is not Taksim, and not the park, but the lack of any form of democratic decision-making process and the utter lack of consensus. We now have a PM who does whatever he wants."
The protests started late on Monday after developers tore up trees to make way for the controversial construction project featuring a shopping centre in nostalgic Ottoman style and building a replica of an old military barracks.
Police staged consecutive raids on protesters, using tear gas and water cannon, but the protests grew in scale, with artists, intellectuals and opposition MPs joining the ranks.
According to the Istanbul Medical Chamber, at least 100 people were injured during the police raids on Friday . Some sustained injuries when a wall they were trying to climb collapsed as they fled from the tear gas. At least seven people were treated for head wounds. Later on Friday police also used tear gas against protesters in Ankara.
In Istanbul, Sirri Süreyya Önder, an MP from the Kurdish BDP party, was taken to hospital after he was reportedly hit in the shoulder by a tear gas cartridge.
Amnesty International condemned the "use of excessive force" by police.
There were reports of a woman having died. In a sign of the tension, amateur video footage showed Turkish military personnel refusing to help the riot police, as well as handing out gas masks to demonstrators. There were also reports that some of the police had switched sides and joined the protests.
With the Erdogan government facing an uncommon popular challenge after 10 years in power, an MP from the governing AK party angered the protesters, tweeting: "It looks like some people needed gas." Sirin Ünal added: "If you go away, you will have a nice day. One has to obey the system."
For the burgeoning protest movement, the park issue is the tip of the iceberg. Another building project, the construction of a bridge spanning the Bosphorus, was launched this week, with Erdogan dismissing public opinion.
"They can do whatever they want," he said. "We've made our decision, and we will do as we have decided," he said. He defended the reconstruction of the Ottoman barracks as a matter of "respecting history". Opponents argue the project will destroy one of the last green spaces in central Istanbul for the sake of private profit.
"How can you show respect for something that does not exist?" asked Tanyeli. "We don't even know what the barracks looked like exactly. To say that this project has anything to do with the reconstruction of a historical building is ridiculous.
"We all know how starved Istanbul is for green space. It needs this park so much more than yet another shopping mall."
Several retailers announced they would not open stores in the planned shopping centre. "I would not open a store in a place where blood has been shed," businessman Selami Sari told the Turkish press.
The park protests show signs of escalating into demonstrations against a prime minister who remains popular and dominates national politics, but is seen as increasingly authoritarian.
"Turkey is not doing well, not doing well at all," said Coskun Ince after several days protesting. "We have to fight for our rights, and now they deny us the few rights we still have."
The protest was unusual in that it brought together young and old, the rightwing and leftists, and nationalist Turks and Kurds. They complained of issues beyond the planned shopping centre from government policy on the war in neighbouring Syria to new curbs on alcohol and a recent row about kissing in public.
"We are fed up," said Cansu Kahvecioglu, a student. "They don't give us any breathing space anymore."
Thousands call on Turkey's leader to quit
By Daniel Dombey in Istanbul
Protests swept Turkey on Friday and deep into Saturday morning as thousands of demonstrators called on prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to resign.
What began as a rally against a shopping mall project turned into one of the biggest challenges in recent years to Mr Erdogan's rule, as whole districts of Istanbul resounded to the banging of pots and pans into the early hours of the morning. Drivers hit car horns in support of the demonstrators.
For more than 12 hours Turkish police had sprayed tear gas against crowds trying to reach Taksim square in the centre of the city. There were widespread reports of injuries among protesters and bystanders.
Protests sprang up in other cities including Ankara, the capital, but Turkish television reporters largely avoided broadcasting coverage of the events. Many local journalists complain they are under pressure to censor the news.
Friday night's protests followed a day of confrontation sparked off when demonstrators seeking to prevent a park adjoining Taksim square from being converted into a shopping mall were evicted from the site. Tear gas was then used on them during a peaceful sit-down protest in the main square.
Plumes of tear gas could be seen rising above the square. A soldier was photographed handing out surgical masks to help protesters escape the gas.
The US, as well as several human rights organisations, expressed concern at the events. "We are concerned about the number of people who were injured when police dispersed protesters," said Jen Psaki, state department spokeswoman. "Turkey's long-term stability, security and prosperity is best guaranteed by upholding the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association, which is what it seems these individuals were doing."
The Islamist-rooted Mr Erdogan, who has been elected three consecutive times with a rising share of the vote, maintains the support of about 50 per cent of the population, according to opinion polls.
More conservative parts of Istanbul appeared to be relatively quiet, a sign that protest was stronger among the country's more secular-minded minority.
However, the size of the protests, and the speed with which they grew, appeared to be a reaction not just to the police crackdown on the initial demonstration in Gezi Park but to Mr Erdogan's general approach to government.
"Gezi Park is the new Tahrir of the region," said Koray Caliskan, a Turkish columnist, in reference to the epicentre of Egypt's 2011 revolution.
Although the government is involved in a dialogue with Turkey's Kurdish population that has brought about a ceasefire in the 30-year conflict with the Kurdistan Workers Party, tensions remain high on other fronts.
Opposition politicians and some observers say the crackdown in Taksim is part of an increasingly heavy-handed approach by the government, which has used tear gas on several other demonstrations this month. The government has also recently pushed through restrictions on alcohol consumption, much to the anger of members of Turkey's old secular elite.
"Occupy Gezi is the explosion of anger against the hubris of one man whose ambitions for power are unmeasured," tweeted the columnist Kadri Gursel.
"Gezi Park is the new Tahrir of the region"
- Koray Caliskan, a Turkish columnist
In what critics say is a further sign of Ankara's divisive approach, Mr Erdogan this week announced that a new $3bn bridge spanning the Bosphorus would be named after the 15th-century Sultan Selim, who established the Ottoman Caliphate and massacred members of the country's Alevi religious minority.
The park construction project would transform the symbolic heart of Istanbul.
While Mr Erdogan favours building a mosque on the site – a proposal that has ignited bitter controversy in the past – at present protests are focused on what would be the removal of one of the few green spaces in the city at a time when mega-projects in the north of Istanbul are scheduled to move or chop down millions of trees.
Mr Erdogan promises he will be undeterred. "There might be some petty unpleasantness but our security forces act proportionately," he said on Friday. Officially, the park is being demolished to rebuild an Ottoman-era army barracks, but the prime minister recently clarified that it would serve as a shopping centre.
In a sign of the resonance of the protest, some big Turkish retail groups said they would be reluctant to be part of the new project.
"It is not possible for us to take part in a project to which the people and our customers are so opposed," said Cem Boyner, head of Boyner Holding, a conglomerate specialising in department stores.
In Taksim itself, moments before the tear gas was released, protesters vowed to persevere. "This is the main square, this is such a symbol for the area; we don't need yet another shopping centre here," said Muge Bolat, a business analyst who had joined the demonstration on her lunch hour. "But for the government and the construction groups it is all about money; they don't listen to what we say."
Suleyman, a policeman who had been in the square since 5:30am, said he was prepared to stay for another week to allow the demolition of the park to proceed, but signalled his own unease. "We do not like these situations," he said. "For all of us it is a sad thing; but I have a wife and a child so what can I do?"
In a press conference Kadir Topbas, Istanbul mayor, said plans for the park had yet to be finalised. Contradicting the prime minister, he said a mall would not be built on the site.
The protests continued despite an Istanbul court issuing a ruling to halt the construction work in the park.
Friday, June 28, 2013
Turkey protests spread after violence in Istanbul over park demolition Demonstrations against Erdogan government in several cities as riot officers use tear gas to control protesters in Istanbul Constanze Letsch in Istanbul
Turkey protests spread after violence in Istanbul over park demolition