On 30 May police in Istanbul broke up a small demonstration by several hundred environmentalists, using tear gas, beating protestors and burning their tents. The cause of the protestors and the abusive response of the authorities touched a nerve. Within days, tens of thousands of protestors had taken to the streets across the main cities of Turkey. By the middle of June hundreds of thousands had taken part in "Gezi Park protests" that spanned almost every one of Turkey's 81 provinces.
The Gezi Park protests began as part of a longstanding campaign against the destruction of the park, one of the last green spaces in central Istanbul, as part of the redevelopment of the Taksim area. The plans include the building of a replica 19th century Ottoman barracks, Topçu Kıslası, and said by the Prime Minister to include the construction of a shopping centre and mosque. Anger was caused not just by the destruction of the park but also the opaque way in which the decision for the redevelopment project was taken, which critics described as characteristic not just of urban regeneration projects but, more generally, of a government unwilling to respect or listen to opposing opinion.
The nationwide protests were fanned by the authorities' aggressive dismissal of the integrity of those originally protesting in Gezi Park and the crude attempts to deny them the right to peaceful protest altogether. The widespread police use of tear gas, water cannon, plastic bullets and beatings of protestors during what were overwhelmingly peaceful protests added to the anger.
Over the next few weeks, this pattern spiralled across the country as protests against police violence and perceived government arrogance were met with fresh violence and increasingly hardline government rhetoric. Indeed, while figures including the Secretary General of the United Nations stepped in to call on the authorities to end the violence, the Prime Minister threatened even more severe repression of the demonstrations should they continue. Large scale protest continued across the country in June and into early July, before reducing in terms of regularity and numbers of participants in mid-July and in August.
At the height of the Gezi Park protests, the authorities repeatedly showed total intolerance for any form of protest, however passive. Even solitary figures, standing alone and silent in Taksim Square were detained for participating in what became known as the "standing man" protests. In July, the Prime Minister suggested that banging pots and pans in solidarity with the demonstrators, would also be considered a crime and at least one criminal case has been opened for this [banging pots and pans in ones own home is a traditional form of protest in Turkey].
While violence continued against protestors, journalists reporting from the protests, doctors treating the injured and lawyers defending their rights were also arrested and subjected to arbitrary and abusive use of force. Rather than address the ongoing abusive use of police force against demonstrators, the authorities rallied against business owners who opened their doors to protestors fleeing police violence, vowing that there would be consequences for them, and condemned social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook that were being used to convey messages by protestors and their supporters.
The mainstream national media, by contrast, conveyed little of the protest, frequently failing to cover them at all, or when doing so, to represent the views of the protestors in their reports. CNN Türk's decision to air a pre-scheduled two-hour documentary on penguins during the first weekend of mass protest across Turkey became a symbol in the eyes of many protestors and the wider public for self-censorship in the national media in general.
The Gezi Park protests left a significant trail of injuries in its wake. On 15 July, the Turkish Medical Association reported that by 10 July there had been more than 8,000 injuries at the scene of demonstrations. As of the end of August, five people had died during the course of the protests. There is strong evidence linking three of these deaths to the abusive use of force by police.
The Ministry of the Interior announced on 23 June that there had been approximately 4,900 detentions from the scene of protests. As of the end of August, police were continuing to detain and question individuals about their alleged instigation of, or participation in the protests. Like others accused of instigating the protests, prominent members of Taksim Solidarity, a coalition of over 100 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), political groups and professional bodies, were being investigated under anti-terrorism laws. Conversely, very little progress has been made to investigate the scores of allegations of abusive police violence. Indeed, the chance of police officers who have used abusive force being brought to justice remains remote unless urgent steps are taken by the authorities.
The authorities' response to the Gezi Park protests to date in many ways represents a continuation of long standing patterns of human rights abuses in Turkey; the denial of the right to peaceful assembly, excessive use of force by police officers and the prosecution of legitimate dissenting opinions while allowing police abuses go unchecked.
The difference in the case of the Gezi Park protests is in terms of scale and constituency. The street demonstrations have been unparalleled in terms of the numbers of people taking part, their duration for over two months and the fact that they spanned virtually every province in the country. Many of those taking part were in their 20s and had not previously been involved in any form of political protest. Many came from the more affluent sections of society. This has brought a more visceral awareness of the human rights abuses previously experienced by people demonstrating on politically sensitive issues such as Kurdish rights and politics to a broader audience within Turkey.
Most fundamentally of all, the Gezi Park protests display the need for the authorities to adopt a radically different approach to peaceful public protest. The current 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.