x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Tens of thousands occupy Turkey's Taksim Square in defiance of Erdogan

Police pull back to let protesters demonstrate in some of the fiercest public dissent of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's 10 years as prime minister. Thomas Seibert reports from Istanbul

A man is hit by water cannon during protests in Ankara on Saturday. Umit Bektas / Reuters
A man is hit by water cannon during protests in Ankara on Saturday. Umit Bektas / Reuters

ISTANBUL // Police pulled out of Taksim Square in Istanbul yesterday, leaving it to tens of thousands of protesters in the fiercest public dissent of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's 10 years as prime minister.

It was the second day of unrest as Turks expressed anger at the heavy-handed police response to a sit-in near the square on Friday.

The protests also reflect an undercurrent of discontent as critics accuse Mr Erdogan and his conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) of becoming increasingly authoritarian.

Mr Erdogan called the protests illegal and warned in a televised speech: "If you are a hundred thousand people, I can gather one million."

While the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) rallied in Istanbul yesterday, the protesters included a broad spectrum of people opposed to Mr Erdogan.

Turkish celebrities also joined the crowds, with thousands milling around the square, waving flags and cheering and clapping at anti-government speeches.

"People from different backgrounds are coming together. This has become a protest against the government, against Erdogan taking decisions like a king," said Oral Goktas, 31, an architect, among a peaceful crowd walking towards Taksim.

Some protesters hurled objects - including fireworks - at police and police vehicles as they retreated, prompting police officers to fire several rounds of tear gas to push back the crowds.

The Turkish Doctors' Association said dozens of people had been treated in hospitals in Istanbul on Friday, and that some had broken limbs. The private Dogan news agency said 138 people had been arrested in Istanbul in rallies that began on Monday as a sit-in protest at Gezi Park, near Taksim Square.

Protesters say the city centre is turning into a concrete wasteland, and staged the sit-in to prevent authorities from cutting down trees in the park to make way for a shopping centre. Police stormed the protest camp early on Friday, and reports of the use of tear gas against the unarmed protesters led to more demonstrations and clashes.

The protests spread overnight and clashes between police and demonstrators were reported in several cities including the capital, Ankara, and Izmir, on the west coast.

The clashes continued yesterday as police used tear gas, water cannon, plastic bullets and pepper spray to disperse thousands of protesters in several cities who called for the government to resign.

Mr Erdogan admitted police may have used excessive force against the protesters in Gezi Park, but insisted that the government would not bow to "illegal and undemocratic actions".

He ordered an investigation into the police action but said he would press ahead with the redevelopment plan.

The prime minister accused his opponents of using the park protests for political ends. "No one has the right to use the argument that trees are being cut down as a pretext for raising tensions in Turkey," he said.

The AKP won almost 50 per cent of the vote in the last elections in 2011 and has an overwhelming majority in parliament, but several recent initiatives that were pushed through without taking opposition or expert opinions into account, such as a new law restricting the sale of alcohol, have angered many Turks.

Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, a political scientist at Istanbul's Kadir Has University, said the initial protest grew bigger because people were outraged by the brutal police tactics.

"It's almost a revolutionary act," he said. "People are saying, 'Wait a second, we tolerate what the majority does, but we want to have our rights protected as well.' Maybe this is good for Turkish democracy. I hope so."

An opposition party leader yesterday compared the government's policies to Hitler's Germany in the 1930s. "We want freedoms and democracy in our country," said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the CHP.

People expressed shock at the harsh police action in Gezi Park. "It was peaceful, the violence definitely came from the police," said Ahmet, a university lecturer in Istanbul who took part in Friday's protests. "Everybody was following things on Twitter.

"There were all kinds of people, students, some Islamists, even members of football fan clubs.

"They shouted 'Government, step down' and cursed the police. When the police attacked, everybody ran."

 

tseibert@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting by the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters