Turkish protesters clash with riot police in Istanbul, May 31, 2013.
Istanbul protesters clash with police. Photo by AFP
Text size
related tags

Turkish police on Saturday let off tear gas and pressurized water against groups of protesters trying to reach a main Istanbul square for a second day of anti-government demonstrations. Police also cracked down on hundreds of people trying to march toward Parliament in the capital, Ankara.

The protests grew out of anger at heavy-handed police tactics to break up a peaceful sit-in to protect a park in Istanbul's main Taksim square on Friday.

It turned into a wider protest against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is seen as becoming increasingly authoritarian, and spread to other Turkish cities. A human rights group said hundreds of people were injured in scuffles with police that lasted through the night.

On Saturday, anti-government demonstrators wearing handkerchiefs and surgical masks chanted "unite against fascism" and "government resign" as they tried to march to Taksim. Some threw stones at police, who were clashing with the groups trying to reach the neighborhood.  

Some 500 people marched along the Bosporus Bridge from Asian shore of the city, toward Taksim, on the European side, but were met with pressurized water and tear gas that filled the air in a thick coat of smoke.

Police detained a group of protesters who ran into a hotel to shelter from the gas, the private Dogan news agency reported.

Despite the violance and a court order that suspended the plans to revamp the contentious Taksim Square, Erdogan announced on Saturday he would push ahead with the park's redevelopment. He said the plans, which officials have said include a shopping mall and the reconstruction of a former Ottoman army barracks, were being used as an excuse to stoke tensions.

"Every four years we hold elections and this nation makes its choice," Erdogan said in a speech broadcast on television.

"Those who have a problem with government's policies can express their opinions within the framework of law and democracy ... I am asking the protesters to immediately end these actions," he said.  

But Bulent Arinc, the deputy prime minister, said the government was wrong to break up the peaceful protest with tear gas and said he welcomed the court decision that suspended the uprooting of the park.

"It would have been more helpful to try and persuade people who said they didn't want a shopping mall instead of spraying them with tear gas," Arinc told reporters. 

The leader of Turkey's pro-secular, main opposition party called on Erdogan to immediately withdraw police from Taksim and to publicly announce that he was abiding by the court decision.

"Show us that you are the prime minister, pull back your police," Kemal Kilicdaroglu said.

Nearly 1,000 hurt

Medics said close to 1,000 people were wounded in the clashes in Istanbul on Friday, the fiercest anti-government demonstrations for years. Half a dozen lost eyes after being hit by gas canisters, the Turkish Doctors' Association said. The Dogan news agency said 81 demonstrators were detained in Istanbul.

The protest was seen as a demonstration of the anger had already been building toward Turkish police who have been accused of using inordinate force to quash demonstrations and of firing tear gas too abundantly, including at this year's May Day rally.

There is also resentment from mainly pro-secular circles toward the prime minister's Islamic-rooted government and toward Erdogan himself, who is known for his abrasive style. He is accused of adopting increasingly uncompromising stance and showing little tolerance of criticism.

In a surprise move last week, the government quickly passed legislation curbing the sale and advertising of alcoholic drinks, alarming secularists. Many felt insulted when he defended the legislation by calling people who drink "alcoholics."

"The use of (tear) gas at such proportions is unacceptable," Ozturk Turkdogan, the head of the Turkish Human Rights Association, told The Associated Press. "It is a danger to public health and as such is a crime. Unfortunately, there isn't a prosecutor brave enough to stand up to police."

"The people are standing up against Erdogan who is trying to monopolize power and is meddling in all aspects of life," he said.

The U.S. State Department said it was concerned by the number of injuries while Amnesty International and the European parliament raised concern about excessive use of police force. Interior Minister Muammer Guler said allegations that police had used disproportionate force would be investigated. 

'This isn't about trees anymore'

The protest at Taksim's Gezi Park started late on Monday after trees were torn up under a government redevelopment plan. Friday's violence erupted after a dawn police raid on demonstrators who had been camped out for days.

Thousands marched through streets in several cities on Friday, calling on Erdogan to resign. Cars honked and residents banged on pots and pans in a show of solidarity with protesters.

In the capital Ankara, thousands gathered at a small park and swelled into a popular shopping street. Many were seen drinking in the street protest of government restrictions on the sale and advertising of alcohol. Police broke up groups that tried to march toward the Parliament building, a few hundred meters (yards) away.

"This isn't just about trees anymore, it's about all of the pressure we're under from this government. We're fed up, we don't like the direction the country is headed in," said 18-year-old student Mert Burge, who came to support the protesters in Insta on Friday after reading on Twitter about the police use of tear gas.