Protests against government plans to convert a park in Istanbul into a shopping mall swelled into a massive anti-regime demonstration as Turkish police brutality drew thousands onto the streets.
Police attacked protesters near Taksim Square in central Istanbul for a second day yesterday, using tear gas, pepper spray and water cannon to drive them off the main pedestrian thoroughfare, Istiklal Street, and into side streets and surrounding neighborhoods.
The ground was littered with broken bottles, tear gas cannisters and rubble as officers in riot gear fired tear gas to push crowds away. Some protesters wore masks, and many shouted obscene slogans against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has led Turkey since 2003.
The clashes escalated after a police raid at dawn, the second in as many days, against people occupying the Gezi Park in Taksim to halt a government-backed project. They oppose what they say are plans to cut down the park’s trees and build a replica of an Ottoman army barracks that once stood there, as well as a shopping mall.
“While the demands of the initial demonstrators were to protect Gezi Park, over the past several days, the protests evolved into a broader protest against Erdogan and what critics describe as his authoritarian government,” Cenk Sidar, managing director of Washington-based economic consultancy Sidar Global Advisors, said in an e-mailed report yesterday.
“The decision to use police brutality quickly turned a peaceful environmental protest into a massive anti-government movement,” said Sidar, whose corporate website says that in 2003 he founded “one of the largest and most active independent, youth-focused social democrat and liberal movements in Turkey.”
Turkey is a NATO ally of the U.S. and European nations and host to much of the opposition to neighboring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has been trying to mend relations between Erdogan’s government and Israel, battered by the deaths nearly three years ago of nine Turks on an aid flotilla to the Gaza Strip.
Umut Oran, deputy chairman of the opposition Republican People’s Party, compared the police action in Istanbul with the kind of dictatorial regimes that Turkey criticizes elsewhere, and accused Erdogan of acting outside the law.
“No one can decide whatever they like, even if he is the prime minister,” Oran said.
Last week, members of Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted party approved strict limits on alcohol sales and promotion, including a total advertisement ban, the prohibition of sales within 100 meters (328 feet) of houses of worship or schools and forbidding retail sales from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m.
“Drinking is forbidden, walking with your girlfriend is forbidden, everything is forbidden,” Aydin Kavacik, a driver for a textile firm, said as police helicopters circled overhead. “We’re here to overthrow Erdogan.”
Turkish news channels minimized coverage of the incidents, with Star TV airing a beauty pageant, NTV a cooking show and TV 24 a taped anti-smoking speech by Erdogan as larger crowds pushed toward the downtown area. Hurriyet newspaper reported other protests in the capital Ankara, and in cities including Izmir, Kocaeli, Mersin, Tunceli and Adana.
Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas told a televised news conference yesterday that work near the park, where crews had already begun to uproot trees, had been “misunderstood.” He said the work going on there wasn’t the start of construction of army barracks.
Sirri Sureyya Onder, a member of parliament from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, was hit in the shoulder at close range by a tear-gas cannister fired by police, and was in intensive care after the cannister exploded on impact, Ertugrul Kurkcu, another legislator from the group, said in a phone interview.
At least two journalists were injured. Ahmet Sik, who gained notoriety for his imprisonment after writing a book about the police called “The Imam’s Army,” was hit in the head and hospitalized, according to Sabah newspaper. Osman Orsal, a Reuters photographer, also received a head injury that required stitches.
Television footage had shown Onder, the BDP lawmaker, at Gezi Park on May 30 physically blocking the construction machines and shouting “there is no license.”
Another lawmaker, Sezgin Tanrikulu from the opposition Republican People’s Party, was also hospitalized, NTV television said. It said six or seven people were taken to hospital and hundreds treated on the scene after being gassed.
BDP said that because “the majority of the injured received head injuries,” that meant they were being targeted by police.
Amnesty International condemned the police treatment of “peaceful protesters” in a statement, citing reports of more than a hundred people injured. One demonstrator needed emergency surgery, it said. Police erected barriers around the park after yesterday’s clashes.
Near midnight, groups of protesters could be seen hurling bottles at armored police tanks while helicopters circled above. Restaurants handed free water to passers-by. Protesters chanted, “We’ve just started, continue the fight!” Others shouted for Erdogan’s resignation.
“I’m not at all a political person, but we’ve had enough of Erdogan and his authoritarian ways,” Balamir Nazlica, a software salesman, said near Istiklal Street yesterday. “This is the first massive protest there’s been.”
Interior Minister Muammer Guler said it was his “duty to investigate claims of use of excessive force by police,” state-run Anatolia news agency said.
Peace and Democracy described the police intervention as “state terror,” according to an e-mailed note. Oran petitioned the prosecutor’s office to investigate “excessive use of force,” according to the Anatolia report.
“Whatever you do, we’ve made our decision and we will implement it,” Erdogan had said of the Gezi Park plans on May 29. “We will revive history there,” he said, without giving details.