Sunday 17 December 2017

Over 1,700 arrested in Turkey as a local protest over park escalates out of control

TAKSIM Square in the heart of Istanbul has become the scene of an angry, frenetic carnival. Thousands of men and women cheered, danced – and then built barricades with cars and buses in preparation for further clashes with Turkey's police.

TAKSIM Square in the heart of Istanbul has become the scene of an angry, frenetic carnival. Thousands of men and women cheered, danced – and then built barricades with cars and buses in preparation for further clashes with Turkey's police.

They lit small fires and covered their mouths to protect against the acrid tear gas that hung in the air after a weekend of protests.

What started as an outcry against a plan to build on Gezi Park, the last spot of greenery in Taksim, has become a nationwide outpouring of anger against Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, who is accused of being "conservative", "arrogant" and "authoritarian".

"This park is a symbol. This is not just about the trees," said Anil Alibeyoglu (23) an electronic engineer.

"Erdogan doesn't see us any more. It is his fanaticism that is the big problem."

The first demonstrations on Friday were small, but the situation escalated after a forceful response by riot police.

Two people were thought to have been killed and a further 1,000 injured with the unrestrained use of tear gas, according to Amnesty International, while the interior ministry announced that 1,700 had been arrested.

Protests have now taken place in 67 cities across Turkey, with police again using tear gas yesterday to control crowds marching on the prime minister's office in Ankara, the capital.

The outpouring of opposition has presented the biggest challenge to Mr Erdogan's leadership since he won power in 2002.

For the past decade, Turkey's economy has blossomed in a region where its neighbours are gripped by war or financial collapse. Inequality and poverty have declined, and the government has won three consecutive general elections, each time with a greater share of the vote.

But, buoyed by his victories, Mr Erdogan has taken a series of bold policy decisions that, in the eyes of many, expose the Islamist outlook of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and seem increasingly oppressive for secular Turks.

"We don't feel we have true freedom in our country. He keeps banning many things. He even tells us that we should have three children. I mean, come on? It's too personal," said a 27-year-old resident of Istanbul, who gave his name as Gokhan, as he sat in Taksim yesterday nursing bruises from a night of clashes with the police. "The people have been putting up with these policies, but now they are full. They have had enough."

Two weeks ago, the government banned the sale of alcohol between 10pm and 6am and then called any Turks who drank "alcoholics". Many secularists interpreted this move as the imposition of Mr Erdogan's religious conservatism.

The prime minister also wants to rewrite the constitution to create a powerful presidency, a job he probably hopes to take for himself. Critics believe this shows his authoritarian instincts, along with the fact that more journalists are currently behind bars in Turkey than anywhere else in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Many of the demonstrators in Istanbul yesterday were young and secular, although older people came to their front doors and banged pots and pans in a show of solidarity. "The AKP are trying to delete everything from our republic; they are trying to destroy everything that Ataturk built up," said one man, referring to the leader who created modern Turkey as a secular republic in 1923.

On Friday, a few hundred protesters had sat in a circle chanting against the redevelopment of Gezi Park. Suddenly, riot police fired volleys of tear gas canisters and unleashed water cannon on the crowd. Shoppers scattered in panic. The expression of a tour guide, holding an umbrella as a beacon for the group behind him, turned to horror as his charges scattered.

"We saw the chaos and the tear gas and we were afraid," said Katja Schumann (39) from Germany, who was in Istanbul on holiday. "We heard the crying and the shooting and we smelled the gas."

The images of wounded protesters that circulated on social networking sites touched a nerve, leading tens of thousands to join the demonstrations on Saturday and again yesterday.

Mr Erdogan acknowledged that "there have been some mistakes, extremism in (the) police response". He claimed yesterday to be a "humble servant" of the people.

Interior minister Muammer Guler said 58 civilians and 115 security officers had been injured in three days of protests.

Yesterday, heavy rain and exhaustion had dampened the protests. One police car lay upturned in the pond of the Hyatt hotel. The test will be whether the demonstrations are sustained. "This will not be forgotten," said one marcher. "It is not only in Istanbul it is across the whole country." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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