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News reports say that police fired a total of 130,000 tear gas cartridges in recent weeks and that stocks were running low. AP Photo
News reports say that police fired a total of 130,000 tear gas cartridges in recent weeks and that stocks were running low. AP Photo

Who gave the order? Investigation calls on 'brutal tactics' of Turkey's police

In an apparent effort to show its sincerity in following up cases of suspected police violence, Ankara has suspended three and praised non-violent forms of protest.

ISTANBUL // A police officer in riot gear and gas mask pulling a young girl by her hair. Tear gas fired straight into crowds of protesters. A demonstrator killed by a bullet from a police weapon fired from close range.

Following scenes of appalling police brutality in Turkey as security forces tried to quell a nationwide wave of protests in recent weeks, demonstrators, human rights activists and experts are calling for a substantial review of police tactics and for the resignation of senior officers.

Even government officials admit that a police operation in Istanbul's Gezi Park late last month that triggered the avalanche of protest was disproportionate and wrong. Five people, including a police officer, have been killed and close to 8,000 have been injured in street clashes since May 31, the Turkish Medical Association says.

In an apparent effort to show its sincerity in following up cases of suspected police violence, the government suspended four officers pending investigations into their behaviour. Four municipal workers in Istanbul, accused of burning down tents of protesters in Gezi Park in a raid that was one of the triggers for the nationwide demonstrations, were also suspended, news reports said on Thursday.

At the same time, the government praised non-violent forms of protest, like the "Standing Man", an exercise in which demonstrators stand still for hours on public squares. "We have to encourage that kind of action," deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc said on Wednesday.

But critics say those gestures by the government are not enough. Turkey has a history of police brutality and impunity. While the number of cases of torture in police custody have decreased dramatically in recent years, critics say the government is still not doing enough to bring offenders to account.

Halil Ibrahim Bahar, a professor at Turkey's Police Academy in Ankara and an analyst at the Ankara Strategy Institute, a think tank, said the incidents like the original attack on Gezi Park on May 31 which used tear gas and water canons should be investigated in depth to prevent public confidence in the police falling even lower.

"That is the mystery - who gave the order?" asked Prof Bahar. He called for a comprehensive report on what went wrong in order to draw lessons for the future. Consequences like the firing of high-ranking officials responsible for police violence were important, he said. "That must be done."

Ertugrul Gunay, a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a former culture minister in Mr Erdogan's cabinet, also said the country's leaders should look at the mistakes that were made as a local protest aimed at stopping a construction project in Gezi Park mushroomed into nationwide anger at the government.

"The fact that a simple demand that was badly handled [by authorities] is at the root of all these events clearly shows us the need for self-criticism," he said on Twitter this week.

News reports say that police fired a total of 130,000 tear gas cartridges in recent weeks and that stocks were running low, cementing an image of a police force that shoots first and asks questions later, according to its critics.

But comments by Prof Bahar, trade unionists and human rights activists suggest the picture is more complex. Mostly young and inexperienced officers on the front lines are overworked and thrown into situations of violence that could have been avoided, they say.

"We are the scapegoats," an official at the Istanbul branch of Emniyet-Sen, a police officers' union, said.

"Officers work 48 or 60 hour at a stretch and have to sleep on park benches or on shields" that are part of their riot gear, added the official, who asked for anonymity because he was not cleared to comment publicly.

The Milliyet daily quoted a police officer photographed while tearing the hair of a young woman in the western city of Izmir as saying that he had been exhausted after working 20 hours non-stop.

The officer was suspended after an investigation into the incident was launched. Another officer in Izmir and one in Istanbul have also been taken off the beat. In Ankara, a state prosecutor has launched a probe into the death of a protester killed by a police weapon on June 1.

Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the problem was more profound than cases of individual misconduct.

"The policing during the last three weeks has been disastrous, a total fiasco," she said.

She echoed Prof Bahar's call for a probe into who made decisions like the one to send police to Istanbul's central Taksim Square on June 11, which led to fierce clashes only hours after the city's governor had calmed the situation by declaring he would like to visit demonstrators in neighbouring Gezi Park.

Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group representing many members of the protest movement, has also been calling for senior officers to be fired.

"All those responsible, especially the governors and police chiefs of Istanbul, Ankara, Hatay and Adana should be relieved of their duties," the group said in a statement this week.

But government praise for the police makes it unlikely that a broad inquiry will be launched. Mr Erdogan said this week he would strengthen the police further to increase its capacity to deal with mass unrest.

On Thursday, police in Izmir on the Aegean coast cleared a stretch of grass near the water occupied by protesters and arrested around 30 people.

tseibert@thenational.ae

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