AFP – Thousands of Turkish police mobilised Saturday in Istanbul ahead of demonstrations to mark the first anniversary of protests that mushroomed into a revolt against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule.
What began last year as small campaign to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park from redevelopment eventually drew an estimated three million protesters in an outpouring of anger at the perceived authoritarian tendencies of Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted government.
Eight people died and thousands were injured in the heavy-handed police crackdown that ensued, as clouds of tear gas wafted through the much-loved park on Taksim Square.
Despite a ban on protests at the square, the epicentre of last year’s demonstrations, activists are calling for a new rally there on Saturday, raising the prospect of clashes after police confronted protesters trying to defy a similar ban on May Day.
Erdogan’s government deployed thousands of riot police and police in civilian clothes Saturday morning to enforce the ban, an AFP reporter said.
Some 25,000 police officers as well as dozens of water cannon trucks and armoured vehicles were due to be deployed across Istanbul on Saturday to prevent demonstrators from reaching the square.
“We know what happened in June last year and it is not a good memory,” Istanbul governor Huseyi Avni Mutlu said this week. “We do not want to see such sorrow again.”
The prime minister also urged young Turks to stay away.
“One year later, people, including so-called artists, are calling for demonstrations, but you, Turkey’s youth, you will not respond to the call,” Erdogan told a crowd of a thousand young people in Istanbul on Friday.
“These terrorist organisations manipulated our morally and financially weak youth to attack our unity and put our economy under threat,” said the premier, who has repeatedly accused unspecified “terrorist” groups of using the Gezi protests to foment discord.
Activist leaders were undeterred, however.
“The government maintains a tense atmosphere that encourages police violence,” said Mucella Yapici, founding member of the activist group Taksim Solidarity.
“But despite this politics of violence and injustice, we will be on the streets,” she said.
Last year’s deadly protests turned into the largest challenge to Erdogan since his Islamic-rooted party came to power in 2002.
“It has been a year since the Gezi events erupted,” Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Saturday. “This is not something to commemorate or to be proud of”.
“There are lessons that we have learnt,” he said without elaborating. “I don’t want such events to happen again as they do not serve Turkey’s peace, progress and strength.”
One year on, the political tensions born out of the Gezi revolt continue to simmer despite a ruling party victory in 30 March local elections that has boosted Erdogan’s ambitions to stand for president in August.
A succession of crises over the last 12 months – from a government corruption scandal implicating the premier and key allies to the mine tragedy that killed 301 workers earlier this month – have sparked renewed anger at Erdogan’s leadership.
Critics meanwhile accuse Erdogan of pressing ahead with controversial policies including muzzling the press, tightening the government’s sway over the judiciary and curbing the Internet.
“Turkish authorities have launched a witch-hunt against all those who have demonstrated or raised their voices,” charged Karim Lahidji, president of the International Federation for Human Rights.