Turkey braces for first anniversary of Gezi Park protests

Activist recalls special spirit at anti-development protest in Istanbul that sparked nationwide demonstrations.
Taksim Square in Istanbul was at the centre of nationwide protests that began on May 31, 2013. Sedat Suna / EPA / May 30, 2014
Taksim Square in Istanbul was at the centre of nationwide protests that began on May 31, 2013. Sedat Suna / EPA / May 30, 2014

ISTANBUL // As soon as he received word that the first of the trees had been uprooted, Ali Cerkezoglu headed to Gezi Park.

A member of Taksim Solidarity, a group that campaigned against the Istanbul park’s development into a shopping mall, Mr Cerkezoglu, 47, had participated in countless rallies and protests. Yet, he said, “something about this one felt different”.

The sit-in, which Mr Cerkezoglu joined on May 28, started small, with fewer than 100 people camping out in the park near the city’s Taksim Square to block the bulldozers’ advance.

Within three days, a year ago today, it turned into a movement that drew in millions of protesters across the country. A sweeping police crackdown followed.

By the time the tear gas had cleared – mass protests fizzled out by mid-June but demonstrations continued intermittently throughout the summer – seven people, including a police officer, were dead, and more than 8,000 were injured, at least 60 of them severely.

The tremors from Gezi shook Turkey’s political establishment to its core. Today, with the violence still fresh in people’s minds, society increasingly polarised and new grievances piling on top of old ones, Turkey is bracing for a turbulent anniversary.

Rallies are expected to take place in a number of cities over the weekend. In Istanbul alone, the government said it would deploy 25,000 policemen and 50 riot vehicles.

Mr Cerkezoglu remembers vividly when he arrived in Gezi Park a year ago on May 28.

Amid the plane and linden trees, he said, there was “an enthusiasm, an energy, and a diversity I’d not seen before”.

Among those gathered were artists, celebrities, journalists, doctors, housewives, young people, pensioners – “people of all stripes”.

Gezi Park, he said, “belonged to everyone”

The way the protest unfolded, said Mr Cerkezoglu, is something that “none of us could have predicted”.

First, the police moved in, dousing the demonstrators with pepper spray, and burning their tents. Soon afterwards, and once news of the crackdown began to spread, stirring a wave of outrage, the protests acquired a life of their own.

By May 31, they had spread to other cities, turning into a magnet for secularists, leftists, greens, feminists, nationalists, and many others, all of them united by resentment towards a government led by the increasingly authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

According to official estimates, about 2.5 million people, out of a population of 77 million, took to the streets.

The unrest was one of most serious challenges to Mr Erdogan’s 11 years in power at the time, and many of the criticisms of the prime minister still remain.

The government’s alleged zeal for putting money in the pockets of friendly construction magnates, the immediate cause of the protests, came into starker view in December, when a controversial investigation unearthed compelling evidence of kickbacks, rigged tenders and favouritism.

Concerns about police violence resurfaced just last week after two civilians, one of them confirmed as a bystander, were killed during clashes between officers and protesters, including leftist radicals, in Istanbul.

Press censorship, the extent of which became obvious when leading outlets buried coverage of the initial Gezi protests, continues to rear its head.

During a visit to the site of a mining disaster on May 14, an angry crowd forced Mr Erdogan and his entourage to duck into a supermarket, where they scuffled with residents. The same day, one of the prime minister’s aides was photographed kicking a man pinned down by two gendarmes. None of the major pro-government papers reported the incidents.

Mr Erdogan has not changed tone. Having accused the Gezi protesters of being part of an international conspiracy last summer, he has continued referring to them as “looters” and rabble-rousers bent on overthrowing his government.

When a 15-year-old boy shot in the head with a tear-gas canister in June died after nine months in a coma, becoming the eighth Gezi victim and triggering further protests, Mr Erdogan not only avoided offering condolences but suggested that the young man had been involved in terrorist activities.

“Are we to hold a ceremony every time there’s a death?” he said on May 23. “He died and it’s over.”

Many Gezi protesters, meanwhile, have found themselves hounded by Turkey’s courts.

In just one trial, 255 people face charges ranging from violating the law on meetings and rallies, resisting police, and desecrating a place of worship. The last charge applies to a group of protesters who sought shelter inside a mosque after fleeing riot police, and did not take off their shoes.

The group also includes two doctors charged with “assisting criminals” after treating injured protesters.

On Tuesday, an Istanbul court issued arrest warrants for 47 suspects who failed to attend the hearings.

Abdullah Onur Eyuboglu, a lawyer representing a young man accused of bringing alcohol into a mosque, said he expected acquittals for all 255.

Their case, he said, should never have gone to trial.

In a separate case, Mr Cerkezoglu and four other Taksim Solidarity members face even more serious charges, including membership in a criminal organisation.

“Our trial has nothing to do with the law, it’s purely political,” he said. “Objecting to government policies, holding rallies, protesting the building of a shopping mall, protecting a park, opposing police violence, asking for more democracy and more freedoms – how can any of this be a crime?”

Mr Cerkezoglu’s trial is set to begin on June 12. He and his colleagues face up to 29 years in prison.

While hundreds of protesters have been inicted, police involved in the crackdown have enjoyed relative impunity, said Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch.

With few exceptions, she said, “the investigation of police violence against demonstrators … has been extremely inadequate”.

Mr Cerkezoglu said he planned to march on Taksim again.

“The point of Gezi wasn’t to defy the result of the ballot box, but to change the political climate, to change the way this country is governed.”

Hopefully, he said, Mr Erdogan, who insists that the way to challenge his rule is not through demonstrtions but through elections, will finally get the message.

“We’re not resisting the government,” said Mr Eyuboglu, the lawyer, who also took part in the 2013 protests. “The government is resisting us.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: May 31, 2014 04:00 AM

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