AFP – A heavy-handed police crackdown on Turkish protesters marking the one year anniversary of deadly anti-government demonstrations earned Ankara Sunday strong rebuke from the Council of Europe.
“I condemn the excessive use of force by the Turkish police against demonstrators and journalists,” Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, said in a statement sent to AFP.
Saturday’s “events add to the list of cases in which the handling of demonstrations in Turkey has raised serious human rights concerns,” he added.
Police clashed with protesters in Istanbul, firing tear gas and water cannon at people clustered on side streets, defying a government ban on demonstrations on the iconic Taksim Square – the epicentre of last year’s turmoil.
Some 25,000 police officers were deployed in Istanbul alone, as well as dozens of armoured vehicles and water cannon trucks, as police helicopters hovered above.
In Ankara, police also clashed with protesters hurling fireworks and responded with water cannon.
In several neighbourhoods, people whistled and banged pots and pans hanging from their balconies — reminiscent of last year’s protests.
Minor clashes ocurred in both cities overnight, but most protests died down after activist group Taksim Solidarity announced late Saturday that the demonstrations were over. Calm appeared to return on Sunday.
Scores of protesters were detained according to rights groups but no official figures were available.
Riot police and plain clothes officers besieged Taksim Square and sealed off the adjoining Gezi Park, the birth place of the unrest sparked by the government plans to raze the city’s one of the few remaining green spots and build a shopping mall.
Photographs showed police violence in Istanbul’s streets close to the square, with some people lying on the ground after inhaling tear gas and some in blood. Other pictures showed officers resorting to batons carried in their backpacks.
Pressure on the media was also high around Taksim as police briefly detained a CNN team during a live report from the square.
“Misconduct of law enforcement officials poses a direct threat to the rule of law and cannot be tolerated,” said Muiznieks, urging Ankara to ensure that handling of protests is carried out in compliance with human rights standards.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a hint of the intervention shortly before the protests when he warned that police would clamp down on anyone defying the ban.
“If you go there, our security forces have received clear-cut instructions and will do whatever is necessary from A-to-Z,” he told thousands of loyalists at a rally.
Last year’s protests drew an estimated three million people nationwide in an outpouring of anger at the authoritarian policies of Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted government.
At least eight people died and thousands were injured in the ensuing violence as police launched a brutal crackdown, frequently employing tear gas and water cannon.
Street battles sparked by Gezi Park protests have become a headache for the ruling party ahead of presidential elections in August, in which Erdogan is widely expected to stand.
Last week, two people died in a working-class district of Istanbul after clashes between police and demonstrators commemorating the death of a teenage boy from injuries sustained during last year’s unrest.
Police also stepped in to disperse thousands of protesters last month in the western town of Soma, scene of the country’s deadliest industrial disaster after a mining accident claimed 301 lives.