In 12 days of protests in Turkey, four people have died, 5,000 protesters have been treated for injuries or the effects of tear gas, and 600 police officers have been injured. That’s according to an update from the Turkish Human Rights Foundation and government sources. The most recent fatality involved a man who died of a heart attack after being exposed to tear gas.
Today, hundreds of riot police bulldozed improvised barricades at Istanbul’s Taksim Square, firing tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons at protesters. The police raid sparked clashes with demonstrators well into the afternoon. Many other protesters fled into the adjacent Gezi Park, where hundreds have been camping out to stop developers from cutting down trees.
The protests began almost two weeks ago as a peaceful demonstration against the redevelopment of Gezi Park, but they have morphed into a test of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authority, and a rejection of what some call his autocratic leadership. Throughout the protests, Erdogan has vowed to continue redevelopment plans. He has dismissed the protesters as extremists and the protests as undemocratic plots to topple his government, which was elected with 50 percent support in 2011.
Erdogan has played good cop and bad cop, sending his love to some protesters and threatening others: “Not only will we end the actions, we will be at the necks of the provocateurs and terrorists and no one will get away with it.”
He insisted today that protests are part of a conspiracy to harm Turkey’s economy and scare away investments. To prove government support, Erdogan asked that major pro-government rallies be held in Ankara and Istanbul this weekend “to ensure that the voice of silent masses is heard.”
Deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc announced late yesterday that Erdogan will meet with some of the Taksim Square protesters tomorrow, but not at the square. Since the protest has no clear leadership, it’s unclear who will attend the meeting. Arinc said the meeting doesn’t signal a government softening toward protesters.
One demonstrator said he joined the protest in Gezi Park because police beat his cousin during the initial clampdown. “I’m here because I’m trying to defend my human rights,” said protester Kenan Agac. “I’m not against police but this morning they came and threw tear gas.”
In Taksim, police addressed the protesters through loudspeakers, appealing for calm and saying they wouldn’t move into the park. But protesters remain wary: “Of course nobody believes the police or the governor when he says police will not interrupt the gathering in Gezi Park,” said protester Tarsu Orzyurt. “We saw policemen telling us ‘come to the street and don’t be afraid,’ then they shoot at us (with tear gas). So nobody believes them.”
About 5,000 people also demonstrated in Ankara. Police there have used water cannons and tear gas to break up demonstrations almost every night.