Protests have continued across Turkey for a fifth night despite the country’s Deputy Prime Minister apologising only hours earlier for the use of “excessive violence” by police.
Last night, police again used tear gas and water cannon to subdue the protests, which began on Friday to voice opposition to the destruction of trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, in Taksim Square, to make way for a shopping centre development, but soon grew into a series of anti-government demonstrations attended by tens of thousands of people across Turkey.
“The excessive violence that was used in the first instance against those who were behaving with respect for the environment is wrong and unfair,” said the Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc during a press conference in the capital, Ankara, yesterday afternoon. “Our citizens showed their legitimate, logical and righteous reaction at Gezi Park... I apologise to those citizens,” he said.
He added: “But, I don’t think we owe an apology to those who have caused damage in the streets and tried to prevent people’s freedom.”
Mr Arinc also confirmed that a second person had died during the protests. Abdullah Comert, 22, a member of the youth wing of the opposition Republican People’s Party, was “seriously wounded after gunfire from an unidentified person” in the southern province of Hatay, the governor’s office said. He died later in hospital. Mehmet Ayvalitas, 20, was killed at the weekend after being hit by a car in Istanbul. Accounts of the circumstances of both deaths varied tonight.
Numbers of those injured also varied. Mr Arinc said 244 police officers and 64 protesters had been injured across Turkey, while the Turkish Medical Association said at least 3,195 people had been injured in the protests over the weekend alone, and 26 of those were in a serious or critical condition.
Mr Arinc’s apology came as a sharp contrast to those of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who departed Turkey for state visits to several North African countries on Monday. Mr Erdogan had described the protesters as “extremists” and “looters” who did not reflect the sentiments of the Turkish people.
Mr Arinc’s address followed a meeting with Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul, who had already defended citizens’ rights to protest. Mr Gul, who like Mr Arinc is a prominent member of the ruling AK Party, said this week that “democracy is not just about voting”. Observers have said this was a reference to Mr Erdogan’s comments on the protests, in which he repeatedly stressed his electoral victories and his party’s majority in parliament.
Critics have argued that Mr Erdogan is using his mandate to push through authoritarian measures, and acting with little regard for consulting the public or the opposition parties.
Protesters have also accused Mr Erdogan of following an Islamist agenda which seeks to erode the secular foundations of the republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk 90 years ago. One controversial example has been the legislation rushed through Turkey’s parliament last week, which would curb sales of alcohol if given approval by Mr Gul. The law would ban retail sales of alcohol between 10pm and 6am, prohibit all alcohol advertising and promotions, and stop new bars from opening within a 100-metre radius of schools and mosques.
Protesters speaking to The Independent said the mixed messages from the Turkish government showed it was treating the demonstrations like “a joke”.
“They are playing a game: [Erdogan] is the bad cop and [Arinc] is the good cop,” said Mert, a 37-year-old engineer who did not want to give his second name. “But it’s becoming exciting, I’m curious to see how the movie ends… [The government] has been acting for 10 years. I want them all to go; I can’t trust them,” he added, speaking in Taksim Square in Istanbul, still occupied by thousands of people.
The atmosphere had become festive tonight, with stalls distributing free food, drinks and medicines, and a field clinic set up in the terrace of a closed Starbucks. “[The government is] joking with the people”, said Umut Caglar, 41, a musician from Istanbul who had joined the protests in Taksim Square.
“We don’t want to change the system; this is not like [the Arab Spring] in the Middle East. The problem here is that, even in democracy, we have a dictator,” said Caglar. He labelled the protests “the Turkish summer”.