In the most detailed study yet on the Gezi Park youth protests in Istanbul in early summer, Amnesty International on Wednesday accused the Turkish government of "human rights violations on a massive scale."
In a report published Oct. 2, the organization detailed what it called "the worst excesses of police violence" during the protests, the failure to bring these abuses to justice and the subsequent prosecution and harassment of those who took part in the demonstrations.
“The attempt to smash the Gezi Park protest movement involved a string of human rights violations on a huge scale. They include the wholesale denial of the right to peaceful assembly and violations of the rights to life, liberty and the freedom from torture and ill-treatment,” said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s expert on Turkey.
The 72-page report, titled "Gezi Park Protests: Brutal Denial of the Right to Peaceful Assembly in Turkey," offers grim reading. It details how the use of live ammunition, tear gas, water cannons, plastic bullets and beatings of protesters left more than 8,000 people injured at the scene of the demonstrations. The deaths of at least three protesters have been linked to the abusive use of force by police. In other findings, Amnesty International says that Turkish police used 130,000 tear gas cartridges during the first three weeks of the demonstrations, and that this greatly depleted the 150,000 cartridges budgeted for in the police force’s annual procurement plan.
The findings, presented at a news conference in Istanbul, came two days after the announcement of the "democracy package" by Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which was criticized for falling short of including measures on accountability of the security forces and investigations over accusations of excessive, brutal force.
"The levels of violence used by police in the course of Gezi Park protests clearly show what happens when poorly trained, poorly supervised police officers are instructed to use force — and encouraged to use it unsparingly — safe in the knowledge that they are unlikely ever to be identified or prosecuted for their abuses," said Gardner.
"The determination of the Turkish authorities to end the Gezi Park protests — and discourage their recurrence — is clear. Their tactics of choice have been force, threats, insults and prosecution,” Gardner said.
“Hundreds of people are facing prosecution solely for their participation in the demonstrations without evidence that they themselves participated in any violent act. Many of those accused of organizing the protests are being investigated under anti-terrorism legislation. The Turkish government must learn to tolerate the dissenting opinions expressed through street protests and ensure that police are equipped, trained and instructed to police them lawfully. The 'democracy package' announced by Erdoğan does not mention these breaches of rights, further more it does not guarantee that they will not be repeated in the future," added Gardner.
The report also refers to the case of Gokhan Bicici, a journalist reporting for Turkey’s IMC TV, detained on the street and in police buses for more than six hours before being taken into official custody on June 16. Video evidence shows him being beaten by a group of riot police officers on a street in the Sisli district of Istanbul.
The large-scale protests had begun in the center of Istanbul initially to object to the urban development plans for Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park. The protests were sparked by outrage at a brutal eviction of a sit-in at the park protesting against the plan. As Erdogan reacted strongly against the protests, calling the protesters "marauders," and launched a massive security campaign, protests spread across Turkey to include a wide range of concerns, at the core of which were issues of lifestyles, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and the environment. With no centralized leadership beyond the small organization sponsoring the original environmental protest, they were compared to the Occupy movement and the May 1968 events.
The protests, paralyzing the city center of Istanbul and flaring up in more than 70 cities across the country and lasting more than 20 days, caused a big trauma in the nation, tore politics apart and fueled further polarization. While Erdogan stood staunchly behind his hard-line policies to curb the waves of unrest, several ministers attempted to calm the tensions. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc even apologized for the wrongdoing in its early phases, but was sidelined.
The divisions in politics were such that they tore cleavages in the top echelons of the state. President Abdullah Gul said, on his way to the UN General Assembly meeting, that he saw them as signs of democratic maturity:
"Actually, I can even feel proud about the start of these and similar incidents. The reason I feel proud is that those who are familiar with Turkey know what kind of news about Turkey was brought to the world's attention 10 or 15 years ago, or they know what Turkey's problems were in that period. And look what Turkey's problems are now. The events in Istanbul started with environmentalist concerns, just as it started in Washington, London and New York. The incidents in Istanbul began with concerns whether a building was appropriate in a certain place [referring to the construction of the Topcu Barracks, which was the primary reason for the protests in Taksim]."
He repeated also his views Oct. 1 at the opening of parliament. "In such a society as ours, which is predominantly young, dynamic and rapidly urbanizing, the demands over needs expressed in a democratic manner never end, and are constant. Therefore, I regarded the concerns of our youth on environmentalism and urban esthetics, their peaceful actions, as how advanced our democracy has become. There was no reason for worry that they came into the agenda just like similar ones in the other democratic countries," he told the deputies. These remarks are seen as Gul's strongest yet in distancing himself from Erdogan on how to view freedoms and the opposition's rights.
Amnesty's report, which will most likely stir up the domestic debate, concludes with a set of recommendations, addressed to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government:
- Ensure the right to freedom of peaceful assembly;
- Conduct a thorough review of the law on meetings and demonstrations;
- Ensure that nobody is detained or prosecuted for activities protected by the right to freedom;
- Police should employ mediation and negotiation to de-escalate conflicts before resorting to the use of force;
- Ensure that journalists are able to perform their duties in reporting from the scene of demonstrations unhindered and in safety;
- Combat human rights abuses by law enforcement officials; and,
- Carry out effective and impartial investigations into all cases of alleged ill-treatment by state officials; and bring those responsible to justice.
Yavuz Baydar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1979, he has been a radio reporter, news presenter, producer, TV host, foreign correspondent, debater and, in recent years, a news ombudsmen for the daily Sabah. His opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language daily Today's Zaman.