5 Things You Need To Know About the Gezi Protests

October 2, 2013

At least eight thousand injured, at least five confirmed deaths (with strong evidence linking at least three of these deaths to police abuse), many thousands detained.

As this powerful video produced by Amnesty International shows, the human cost of the Turkish government’s decision to suppress peaceful protests this past summer was immense.

In a major report issued today, Amnesty International has given compelling and comprehensive documentation of these events, providing detailed evidence of Turkish authorities suppression of freedom of assembly and expression.

Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s expert on Turkey summarized the conclusions of the report:

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.

Here are the key points:

  1. Turkey has arbitrarily and repeatedly denied its citizens their rights to peaceful assembly, characterizing this most basic element of a functioning democratic society, as a “as a threat to democracy that must be stopped.”

From the start of the Gezi Park protests the Turkish authorities have – with isolated and brief exceptions – displayed a blatant disregard for the right to peaceful assembly as set out in international and national law. The government has repeatedly sought to discredit the protestors’ motives, integrity and behavior. Public officials have variously referred to the protestors as hooligans and claimed that marginal or even terrorist groups were behind the protests. The authorities have also frequently accused protesters of being violent, when they were in fact overwhelmingly peaceful, indeed, remarkably so, considering the levels of violence used by the police to disperse them.

  1. The high number of injuries in these protests were a direct result of police abuse. Turkish officials, from the Prime Minister on down, have not merely turned a blind eye to such abuse, they have openly supported it. The report notes that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in rejecting international calls for restraint, replied that “that police would use still greater force.”

As the report notes:

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.

The report goes on to describe the rampant nature of abuse:

Police officers, including plain clothes officers, and civilians acting in partnership with police were also seen beating suspected protestors. Professionals carrying out their duties at the scene of demonstrations including journalists, doctors and lawyers were also among those beaten by police. The majority of women detained by the police that Amnesty International spoke to in the course of researching this report, reported that they had been sexually harassed by law enforcement officials. Almost all referred to the repeated use of sexual insults, several to the threat of sexual violence, and a few  to actual sexual assault.

  1. Turkish authorities had a clear strategy of using “less lethal” weapons associated with riot control, such as tear gas, plastic bullets, and water cannon, in clearly abusive ways.

From the start of the demonstrations, police used water cannon, pepper spray and tear gas in a clearly unnecessary and disproportionate manner, as they were for the most part used to disperse peaceful protesters rather than in targeted responses to individual or collective acts
of violence.

This abuse has resulted in a number of deaths and thousands of injured, many seriously. Some protestors have lost eyes. Other victims have suffered serious brain injuries. Fourteen-year old Berkin Elvan, for example, was unlucky enough to simply be on the street when protests were occurring near his home. He was hit in the head by a
gas canister fired from a distance of approximately 20-25 meters and has been in a coma since June 16.

  1. Impunity for Turkish security forces guilty of abuses continues.

Though the abusive use of force by police has been widely documented, the likelihood of those responsible being brought to justice remains remote. Police officers in Turkey have long enjoyed de facto immunity from prosecution, especially in the context of demonstrations. The lack of effective investigations and prosecutions of abuses by law enforcement officials and the absence of genuinely independent complaints mechanisms has been noted with
concern in recent years by both the U.N. Human Rights Committee and the Committee against Torture…
While investigations into the abuses that were reported in connection with the Gezi Park protests are ostensibly ongoing, the early indications are that the usual impunity will prevail. With a few exceptions, official statements have typically praised the police and exonerated them of wrongdoing.
The Prime Minister has been particularly effusive, referring to the actions of police as “legendary,” and describing the police as victims of violence. Police tactics, such as the use of unofficial detention, and the widespread failure of police to wear visible identification numbers have both facilitated abuses and made the likelihood of bringing successful prosecutions more remote.

5. The crackdown is broad and on-going, with Turkish authorities targeting anyone who is perceived as having supported the protestors.

The list of those targeted by authorities is long. Users of social media have  been subject to investigation and detained. Medical clinics have been raided, businesses seen as supportive of the protestors have been targeted with tax audits, lawyers have been harassed and detained, journalists have been subject to beatings and arrest. Newspapers, owned by large holding companies that fear government reprisals, sack journalists who are too brave or too prominent to otherwise be silenced.

What now?

Amnesty has a series of important recommendations for how Turkey can change tack, ranging from investigation into past abuse to bringing its laws into line with international standards. We cannot, however, simply hope for the best.

Amnesty has called on states, including the U.S., to cease all transfers of riot control materials such as tear gas and plastic bullets “until the Turkish authorities allow prompt, independent and impartial investigations into the allegations of abusive or arbitrary use of force and demonstrate a commitment to their use in accordance with international standards.”

In the meantime, here are some things you can do to help:

  1. Voice your concerns directly to the Turkish government through this online petition.
  2. Voice your concerns directly to the United States government, by contacting your representatives in Congress.
  3. Stay informed by following us on Facebook or on the Amnesty USA’s blog, Human Rights in Turkey.
  4. Share the news via social media. Use twitter and Facebook to maximize our impact. Don’t just “like,” ask your friends to take action. Share this blog. Share the petition. Share the video. In the era of social media, everyone has a part to play in the call for freedom.