x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Turkish protesters mull new offer from Erdogan

Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that a government construction project in Gezi Park would be delayed until the resolution of a current court case and, depending on the ruling, a referendum in Istanbul would follow.

Activists stand on a barricade next to a Turkish flag with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's picture at the entrance of Gezi Park in Istanbul.
Activists stand on a barricade next to a Turkish flag with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's picture at the entrance of Gezi Park in Istanbul.

ISTANBUL // Protesters in Turkey yesterday mulled a new offer by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan aimed at ending the occupation of a park in central Istanbul and easing tensions after two weeks of anti-government demonstrations.

Mr Erdogan said in a televised speech yesterday that a government construction project in Gezi Park in Istanbul would be delayed until the resolution of a current court case about the issue, which could take several years. If the courts decided in his government's favour, he would then put the issue to a local referendum in Istanbul, he said.

The prime minister repeated his appeal to protesters in Gezi Park to end their occupation of the area and again hinted at a police assault should they stay there.

"Please leave the park and go home," Mr Erdogan said, adding that "other methods" would be used against those who stayed any longer. "What else can I say?"

Mr Erdogan made his new offer during several hours of talks with a delegation of artists and representatives of the protesters in Ankara late on Thursday. He also promised to punish police officers guilty of using disproportionate force against protesters.

The prime minister's new position represented a marked climbdown from his original approach two weeks ago, when he said demonstrators would not be able to change his government's decisions for the park.

A police raid on the park to evict an original small group of environmentalists on May 31 triggered the current occupation of area by hundreds of demonstrators and a landslide of protest marches and clashes between police and demonstrators all over the country that killed five people and injured more than 7,000. The fifth victim, Ethem Sarisuluk, a young man hit by a police bullet in Ankara on June 1, died in hospital yesterday, Mr Sarisuluk's brother Mustafa told the online edition of the Hurriyet newspaper.

A local court in Istanbul stopped the government construction work in Gezi Park with a decision handed down on May 31, but the government is appealing against the verdict. If the case goes up to Turkey's top administrative court in Ankara, it could take years before a final decision is reached.

Tayfun Kahraman, a leading member of Taksim Solidarity, a group representing many demonstrators in Gezi Park who was part of the delegation that met Mr Erdogan, said the meeting had produced a "positive result".

It was the second time within two days that Mr Erdogan met with demonstrators. In his speech yesterday, the prime minister said well-meaning protesters in the park were being used by "illegal groups" in a "giant open-air theatre".

Taksim Solidarity said it would discuss the outcome and issue a statement later in the day or today.

In the park itself, several demonstrators, braving heavy rain and a thunder storm, said they were staying for now.

"Nobody's is going home," said Ozge, a law student, 18, who would only give her first name. She said she did not trust the government to stick to its latest promises.

"I am afraid we could lose everything we have gained if we went home now," she said.

Ugur Hafizoglu, a 29-year-old advertisement executive, said the latest concessions by Mr Erdogan were part of "psychological tactics" by the prime minister. "It is not convincing," he said.

Devrim Yoldas, a music composer, 35, said he would wait for the meeting of Taksim Solidarity before deciding whether to stay on or not.

In recent days, Mr Erdogan and Istanbul's governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu repeatedly called on protesters to lift the occupation of the park or face a police assault.

But Mr Mutlu, speaking after his own meeting with demonstrators in Istanbul early yesterday, appeared to give the protesters more time to decide, saying he wanted to make the park available for the general public "for a picnic on Sunday".

Police presence outside the park was lighter yesterday than in previous days, but there were fresh clashes in the capital Ankara.