Despite the initial Turkish media blackout of events on the streets of Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Izmit, Adana, Bursa and other major Turkish cities, social media and the international press have been flooded by shocking images of heavy-handed police tactics against Turkish activists voicing their right to protest.
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A peaceful demonstration against government sponsored urban development of a central Istanbul park, one of the last green spaces left in the urban sprawl of central Istanbul, has been met, day after day, with volleys of tear gas and water cannon. According to a non-governmental doctors' association, over 1,000 were injured from last Friday’s protest alone.
The police's aggression helped morph the protest into a much larger public expression against draconian police tactics and the authoritarian nature of the government.
This is not the first time Turkish police have used disproportionate force against peaceful demonstrations. Just one month ago, the police indiscriminately volleyed tear gas to disperse a May Day rally, injuring both protesters and passers-by.
In December 2012, students from Ankara’s prestigious Middle East Technical University (METU), who were protesting a visit by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, and his ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) higher education privatization policies, were subjected to arrests, tear gas and jail threats. One student was hit in the head by a gas canister fired directly at students.
In October 2012 pepper spray, tear gas and water cannon were also used to prevent Turks from celebrating Republic Day, marking the 89th anniversary of the founding of the modern Turkish state.
Throughout 2011 and 2012, when the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (KDP) led demonstrations demanding greater Kurdish rights long repressed throughout Turkey’s history, police again reacted with overwhelming force. Over 300 protesters were injured and more than 3,500 arrests were made.
During the same period, 1,700 Turkish citizens held a hunger strike calling for better conditions for Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Protesters were given no open space to demonstrate their support, and the ailing conditions of the activists failed to strike a sympathetic chord among the AKP.
All of the above protests were either prevented or brutally suppressed by the police; by no accident, all these protests ran counter to the agenda or policies of Erdogan's ruling AKP.
However, not all protests in Turkey are subject to such harsh police crackdowns. Demonstrations in favour of Erdogan and the AKP are not only sanctioned, but are supported, encouraged and even given direct logistical assistance.
In January 2009, Erdogan stormed off the stage at the Davos World Economic Forum after an angry exchange with Israeli president Shimon Peres. Thousands of people turned out for a pro- Erdogan demonstration at Istanbul airport to greet the returning Prime Minister.The Istanbul municipality, controlled by Erdogan’s party, arranged special free journeys on public transport for pro-government protesters to get to the show of support. The municipality also distributed Palestinian flags and other relevant provisions.
It is also worth noting the case of the protests after the Mavi Marmara incident where nine pro-Palestinian activists of Turkish origin were killed by Israeli commandos. Tens of thousands of Turks held rallies in several Turkish cities shouting both anti-Israeli and pro-government slogans. Some protesters even tried to attack the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul and its embassy in Ankara. No tear gas was fired, nor did the police use water canon to disperse the protesters. Instead the activists were supplied with flags and banners by municipalities or NGOs affiliated with the AKP.
In February 2012, tens of thousands of people staged a protest rally close to Taksim Square, the epicentre of the current demonstrations. However, this demonstration commemorated the 20th anniversary of the killing of 600 Azeri civilians by Armenians during the Ngorno-Karabakh conflict. Militant anti-Armenian slogans were shouted as well as threats of violence such as, “You are all Armenians, you are all bastards”. However, then-interior minister Idris Naim Sahin from the AKP joined the rally and delivered a supportive speech. No tear gas, no water cannon, no injuries.
Protests in Turkey are not always met by violent police action, but that is of course only if they are in favour of Erdogan or his party's agenda. As Erdogan recently commented, “If it comes down to making a meeting, if you gather 100,000 people, I can gather a million”. Indeed, that's because pro-AKP protests receive support, encouragement and are not suppressed by the government or its institutions. Such a selective right to protest is not a right at all.
Emre Caliskan is a London based freelance journalist writing on Turkey and Middle East Affairs. Simon A. Waldman is a lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies at King's College London.