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Escalating the crisis

Senada Sokollu, Istanbul / mllJune 17, 2013

Following police action to clear Gezi Park in Istanbul, the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan escalates the crisis with sharp attacks on the demonstrators.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan waves hand as he arives with his wife Emine at a rally of ruling AK party in Istanbul June 16, 2013. Tens of thousands of Erdogan's supporters massed at a rally in Istanbul on Sunday, as riot police fired tear gas to break up pockets of anti-government protesters in the city centerseveral kilometers away. REUTERS/Murad Sezer (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Image: Reuters

For a short time, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, allowed his critics to hope that he would put an end to the brutal police operations of the last two weeks. In the middle of last week, he signaled that he might be prepared to take part in a dialogue. He met members of one of the most important parts of the protest movement, the Taksim Solidarity Platform. He even spoke about the possibility of a referendum, to let the people decide what should become of his controversial plans for Gezi Park.

The storming of Gezi Park by police on Saturday evening showed that the Turkish government is not interested in a peaceful solution to the conflict. The police behaved more brutally than ever. They fired tear gas into cafés and hotels in which people had taken shelter. Even children and older people were the targets of tear gas and water cannon.

"The police are now even using chemicals in the water cannon," 24-year-old demonstrator Alper Baysan told DW. "Friends of mine had to be taken to hospital as a result."

Protesters are confronted by police during a demonstration at Kizilay square in central Ankara June 16, 2013. Thousands of people took to the streets of Istanbul overnight on Sunday, erecting barricades and starting bonfires, after riot police firing teargas and water cannon stormed a park at the centre of two weeks of anti-government unrest. Lines of police backed by armoured vehicles sealed off Taksim Square in the centre of the city as officers raided the adjoining Gezi Park late on Saturday, where protesters had been camped in a ramshackle settlement of tents. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic (TURKEY - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS)
Hundreds of police faced thousands of demonstrators again on SundayImage: Reuters

'It's like war'

"It's like war," said the German Green party chairperson Claudia Roth. "They're chasing people through the streets and they are firing tear gas canisters directly at people." She was in Gezi Park and was injured when it was stormed, and she escaped into the cellar of a nearby hotel.

Other eye-witnesses report that police were stopping people who were wearing masks to protect their eyes and mouths from the tear gas, and violently tore the masks off them. The police not only arrested demonstrators, they detained doctors who were trying to help the injured, as well as journalists who didn't have Turkish press passes.

But the journalists also came under attack from some of the demonstrators: one demonstrator shouted at the DW team, "Turn your camera off; you filmed enough last week. People get problems [from being filmed]. They are not just worried about their jobs; they're worried for their lives."

Protesters are evacuated from Gezi Park by riot police at Taksim Square in Istanbul June 15, 2013. Turkish riot police stormed Gezi Park on Saturday firing tear gas and water cannon to evict hundreds of anti-government protesters, hours after an ultimatum from Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. REUTERS/Murad Sezer (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Demonstrators used gas masks to protect themselves from the tear gasImage: Reuters

People are especially disappointed in the Turkish media. They've been playing down what's been happening in Gezi Park. Sabah, which supports the government, reported on Monday morning: "The police cleared the park without putting anyone in danger."

In spite of the violent action to clear the park, thousands of people gathered on Taksim Square on Sunday. Hundreds of police were there too.

Hate speech

Meanwhile, Erdogan delivered a speech to hundreds of thousands of bused-in supporters. He accused the international press of a plot against him and his government: "CNN, Reuters, remain isolated with your lies!" he said, and attacked the protest movement once more. He described them again as "plunderers," and threatened them: "You are no real Turks. Watch out: those who work against Turkey will have cause to tremble with fear." Hotel owners who hid these "terrorists" would also have to pay the reckoning.

Supporters hold a poster of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan during a rally of ruling AK party in Istanbul June 16, 2013. Tens of thousands of Erdogan's supporters massed at a rally in Istanbul on Sunday, as riot police fired tear gas to break up pockets of anti-government protesters in the city center several kilometers away. REUTERS/Murad Sezer (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Erdogan is still able to count on the support of large parts of the populationImage: Reuters

The journalist and writer Cengiz Aktar considers Erdogan's rhetoric to be dangerous: "People who only listen to their prime minister and read newspapers which support the government don't understand what it's all about," he told DW. Erdogan always appeared angry and was only increasing the tension in the country: "If he carries on like that, the country will have an even bigger crisis. He's always pouring oil into the fire."

'We need new police laws'

Yaman Akdeniz, a lawyer at Bilgi University, has been shocked by the police operation: "That's unacceptable in a democratic society: the police laws which date from the 30s have to be changed." For example, there are no laws or regulations which govern the use of tear gas. "I would normally expect an inquiry - there's too much evidence of police brutality on Twitter and on television." He'd seen police officers without identification numbers on their helmets: "That's against the law - we have to identify these people."

People march from Anatolian side to European side to Taksim square in Istanbul, on June 16, 2013. Police fired tear gas and jets of water to disperse hundreds of demonstrators in Istanbul's Taksim Square, shortly after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned police would intervene to end protesters' occupation of a park bordering the square. Turkish protesters today had refused to budge from an Istanbul park at the centre of nationwide anti-government demonstrations after rejecting a government olive branch aimed at ending two weeks of deadly unrest. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
The police have not been able to stop people from continuing to demonstrate on Taksim SquareImage: AFP/Getty Images

Journalist Cengiz Candar thinks that Erdogan will not be able to bring the protest movement under control by using the police: "As soon as the police withdraw from Taksim Square, the occupation will carry on," he told DW. "I fear that Erdogan has already split society." His authoritarian politics made it difficult to keep Turkey unified.

'Power corrupts'

Protester Alper Baysan believes the division of the country is coming from the top. "There are many people among the demonstrators who voted for Erdogan's party," he says, "but they're demonstrating here with us because they believe we need more democracy." He applies the old proverb to Erdogan: "Power corrupts - it's all about his ego."

Another demonstrator just wants to add one thing: he's ashamed of his country.