Turkish police used tear gas and water cannon to clear protesters from the center of Istanbul ahead of a visit by Prime Minister Erdogan on Sunday. The move has done nothing to quell people's outrage.
In a full-scale operation on Saturday night (15.06.2013), Turkish riot police in Istanbul moved in to clear both Taksim Square and adjacent Gezi Park, where thousands of demonstrators had been camping out for more than two weeks.
Just hours earlier Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had given a speech to a crowd of tens of thousands of flag-waving supporters in the capital, Ankara, in which he warned the demonstrators that they had to be gone by Sunday. "Taksim Square must be evacuated, or if it isn't, the security forces of this country know how to evacuate it," he said.
24-year-old Ilias Kurtca witnessed the police operation. "Before it began, the police warned the demonstrators over loudspeakers. They said that what we were doing was illegal, and told us to go. But we stayed, because what we're doing is not illegal," the young protester told DW.
On the contrary, he said, it was what the police did that was illegal. "There were so many children and mothers in the park, because it was Saturday evening. Suddenly, they all started running," said Kurtca. He described the police encircling the demonstrators in Gezi Park, making it impossible to escape. "Many people tried to flee into nearby hotels. The police even fired tear gas canisters outside the hotels and in front of the infirmary," Kurtca reported.
Another eyewitness in the Hotel Divan beside the park said it was difficult for them to breathe. "We're even feeling the effects of the tear gas in the basement of the hotel. This is inhuman," she said.
The leader of the German Green Party, Claudia Roth, was in Gezi Park to show solidarity with the protesters. She too was appalled by the behavior of the police, and said it had given her a sense of what war was like.
Desperate protesters turned to Twitter to plead for help from the United Nations. Other eyewitnesses reported arrests and violent attacks by baton-wielding police. But the governor of Istanbul, Huseyin Avni Mutlu, justified the operation. "We asked the demonstrators to end their protests. We only went in after we had given the warning," he said.
'It was all planned'
Over the last few days Erdogan had been indicating that he was prepared to engage in dialogue. On Thursday night, he met for the first time with the umbrella group Taksim Solidarity, a key representative of the protest movement. The prime minister repeatedly tried to persuade the demonstrators to leave. "You youngsters have stayed here as long as you could, and have relayed your message," he said on Friday, assuring them that "if your message is about Gezi Park, it has been received."
However, one of the protest movement's most important demands was that those responsible for the police violence be punished. The demonstrators wanted to see this demand met, but after it wasn't, on Saturday afternoon, they announced that the protests would continue.
In the opinion of one young demonstrator, "Erdogan demonstrated willingness to talk in order to legitimize the use of force. It was obvious that he was going to attack," she told DW. She remains convinced that the combination of dialogue and a police operation was planned in advance.
Another protester managed to find something positive in the violent confrontations. "Turkish youth have been asleep for years. There have been plenty of things that have bothered us under Erdogan's leadership, but nobody ever said anything," the demonstrator told DW. From now on, she believes young Turkish people will take to the streets over even the smallest things to ensure that nothing like this happens again. People have already been protesting in sympathy in other towns and cities across the country.
'Prepared to die'
By Sunday afternoon police had cordoned off Taksim Square and Gezi Park, but were still battling defiant demonstrators in neighboring side streets. On Sunday night (16.06.2013) Erdogan was slated to attend a big political rally in Kazlicesme, a mostly conservative-Muslim part of Istanbul, and give a speech to his supporters. All over the city center there are advertisements in which the prime minister urges his constituents to demonstrate. The people of Istanbul are furious.
A demonstrator told DW what was anticipated. "It will be massive," she said. "We are all going to march to Taksim Square. A lot of people are sure to get hurt. There may even be deaths. Demonstrators are even coming here from other cities to support us. We'll be divided into two halves: Erdogan's people and our people."
One protester that DW spoke to emphasized that he was prepared to die if he had to: "I really don't care," said the man, who was in his fifties. Another said he could only laugh at Erdogan's visit and commented that the prime minister was behaving like a child who had had his toys taken away. "No one believes this performance of his," the 24-year-old protester told DW. "He will just pay some of his supporters to turn up. No one believes him any more."
Another young woman said that Erdogan's visit was the reason why the police had broken up the protests: "So that he could take the stage without feeling any pressure from the demonstrators in Taksim Square."
If that was Erdogan's plan, it is likely to backfire. The two main protest areas have been forcibly evacuated. The demonstrators are now preparing to march.