x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Erdogan set to meet protesters in bid to end crisis

The prime minister repeated his offer to hold a referendum on a controversial building project in Gezi Park in central Istanbul - which sparked almost two weeks of anti-government protests across the country - but demonstrators showed no sign of withdrawing.

ISTANBUL // Recep Tayyip Erdogan was due to meet representatives of protesters occupying a park in Istanbul last night in an effort to prevent further street battles, hours after warning them to leave or face police action.

The prime minister, who met protesters for the first time on Wednesday, yesterday also repeated his offer to hold a referendum on a controversial building project in Gezi Park in central Istanbul – which sparked almost two weeks of anti-government protests across the country.

“Our patience has ended, and I am giving this warning for the last time,” Mr Erdogan said in televised remarks earlier yesterday.

“Mothers and fathers, please take your children and get them out of there,” he added. “We cannot wait much longer.”

But later, Taksim Solidarity, a group representing many demonstrators in Gezi Park, said it was sending a delegation including several artists and intellectuals to meet Mr Erdogan in Ankara late last night.

“The suggestion for the meeting came from the artists and the government,” Tayfun Kahraman, a leading member of Taksim Solidarity, said on Twitter. He said he received assurances from the authorities that Gezi Park would not be attacked by police while the talks were taking place.

There was no sign yesterday that the hundreds of demonstrators occupying the park were prepared to leave. Police officers in riot gear and several water cannon were posted on the fringes of Taksim Square next to the park, but Istanbul’s governor, Huseyin Avni Mutlu, last night said that no decision on an operation had been taken.

The prime minister said on Wednesday that the protests would be ended within 24 hours.
Brutal police action against a small group of locals and environmentalists in Gezi Park on May 31 triggered the fiercest anti-government protests since Mr Erdogan came to power 10 years ago.

Four people have died and about 7,500 have been injured in the countrywide demonstrations, the Turkish Medical Association said.

The police action, and Mr Erdogan’s dismissal of the unrest as the work of “plunderers” have drawn international condemnation.

The European Union’s parliament yesterday warned Turkey, which is seeking membership, against using “harsh measures” against peaceful protesters and urged Mr Erdogan to take a “unifying and conciliatory” stance.

The resolution adopted in Strasbourg also expressed deep concern “at the disproportionate and excessive use of force by Turkish police to break up peaceful and legitimate protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park”.

But Mr Erdogan rejected the criticism, saying he did not recognise any decisions by the EU parliament concerning Turkey.
Ankara’s foreign ministry said the EU resolution would damage the joint aim of Turkey and Europe to strengthen democracy.

Mr Erdogan said the referendum on Gezi Park could be held in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul or across the city as a whole.

He did not give a date for the vote. As his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is the strongest political group in both Beyoglu and greater Istanbul, the prime minister would have a good chance of winning. He said he would talk to authorities in Istanbul about the issue today.

Ongun Yucel, a spokesman for Taksim Solidarity, said that activists would not go home.
“Why should we go when our demands have not been met?” he told The National. The group wants government assurances that the building project will be cancelled, the dismissal of the officials who ordered the brutal police action against protesters, a ban on tear gas, and stronger rights of assembly and free speech.

The organisation also wants the release of all people arrested due to the unrest in the past two weeks. Turkish news reports last night suggested that prosecutors had started questioning 42 people detained in Istanbul this week.

Demonstrators in the park yesterday said they had no intention of giving up. None of those interviewed said they would leave.

“We are staying,” said Ahmet Cenker, a university student who said he had been living in a tent since June 1. “We are expecting a police assault any time, because Erdogan has given us 24 hours.”

Murat, 30, a filmmaker who would only give his first name, was also sure the police would attack the park to demolish the tent city.

“The government is describing us as occupiers who violate the rights of others” by excluding the public from the park, he said. “The police will try to throw us out. There will be an attack for sure.”

Demonstrators also rejected the idea of a referendum. “There have been deaths and injuries,” said Serap, 37, a nurse from a state hospital.
“You can’t just hold a referendum as if nothing happened.”


tseibert@thenational.ae