In a comprehensive report released today, Amnesty International takes a look at this summer's Gezi Park protests in Istanbul and other Turkish cities, concluding that the government's heavy-handed response resulted in "gross human rights violations." The report, which can be found here, includes several interviews with protestors and others who were victims of police violence during the protests and is well worth reading.
To get a bit more background about the report's finding, I spoke with Andrew Gardner, Amnesty's Turkey researcher. Below is an edited version of our conversation:
How did things the Gezi events, in terms of the government’s response, get to the point that they did?
I think there are a couple of points to discuss. One is that there isn’t anything especially remarkable about peaceful protest in Turkey being broken up by police, them using excessive force and the government denying the rights of protesters to gather peacefully. The difference with the Gezi events was the scale and the constituency – there were plenty of middle class Turks involved in the protests – and the fact that there was so much exposure of the events in the mainstream international process. What happened was remarkable in terms of its scale and the government reaction was, unfortunately, similar to what has happened in the past.
I think the way the government looks at opposition is to really try to crush dissenting opinions and to see all dissenting opinions expressed as representing illegal organizations or those looking to undermine Turkey. So the response is to try to crush any effort to oppose the government.
What happened in the Gezi Park protests was a continuation of this ongoing effort by the government to crush dissenting opinions. What we saw in Gezi was an effort to express these dissenting opinions on a massive scale. The scale of the demonstrations spiraled, as did the government’s efforts to crush them. They went after, in a systematic way, not only the demonstrators but those they perceived as supporting them.
I think the government’s response should be seen in this respect, in that a government which doesn’t really have any serious opposition to it, in parliament or the media, was suddenly faced with a massive opposition made up of lots of people in their 20’s and people who were not politically active before. People who were incensed by what they saw happening in Gezi Park, people who maybe were not politically active before or aware of the political abuses taking place in Turkey. This was a real shock to the government.
You mentioned that the protests were different in term of their “scale and constituency.” Can you elaborate?
I think for a generation you haven’t seen a situation where protests have been taking place with thousands of people in all the major cities across Turkey, especially that first weekend when you had protests taking place in the three biggest cities. By the end of June, in Turkey’s 80 largest provinces, you had demonstrations in 79 of them.
For a generation, you really haven’t had something that touched the nerve of ordinary people, of well-off people, who took part in something that they normally wouldn’t have taken part in. That’s what made the authorities so worried about what was going on.
In terms of constituency, it wasn’t the usual suspects. You had middle class people participating, young people, affluent people, people who perhaps didn’t like the government but didn’t do anything active to protest what was going on. In our report, we quote a report made by the Ankara police chief, who himself says these were not the usual people involved in protests.
The government’s response, though, was similar to the past?
To a certain extent. Police using excessive force is a continuing reality in Turkey. But what we saw that as the protests continued, it was business as usual but we also started seeing the use of extreme violence by police. As the protests went on and on, the level of police violence increased and increased in line with government’s statements praising the police and saying they were the victims of violence and encouraging them to use even greater force. These government statements and this sort of inflammatory language that accompanied it increased police violence.
The use of tear gas canisters as a weapon, to fire directly at people, has been seen before in Turkey. This took place in 2006 in Diyarbakir. But during Gezi this was done in such a systematic way, while the number of injuries caused by people being hit by gas canisters in the head or other parts of the body hasn’t been seen before. The amount of tear gas that was used in the first few weeks also had not been seen before. The government usually budgets for 150,000 canisters of tear gas a year and in the first few weeks of protests they used 130,000 canisters. The use of tear gas broke all records.
What are Amnesty’s main concerns about what took place during the Gezi events based on the research you did for your report?
I think main concerns about what came out of this summer is first, and most fundamentally, is that the government needs to have a radical change of tack in how it handles dissenting opinions. It has to get thicker skin. It has to allow people to protest it peacefully. It needs to allow these things to take place. That is the absolute fundamental one. All the things in our report stem from the government not looking at these people as participating in a fundamental right to peacefully protest, but as being a threat to democracy and seeking to undermine the government. This has to fundamentally change.
The second point is that Turkey has to have a police force that is properly trained, instructed and held accountable in a way that’s in line with international human rights standards. It’s not about, as the government said, to enhance the police’s ability to intervene in peaceful demonstrations. You need a police force that’s properly trained, equipped and required to police demonstrations effectively and in line with international human rights standards. It’s not about giving them more power to intervene, but to know that peaceful demonstrations can go ahead without intervening. This is a change of mentality in the police force. It’s the fact that this was missing that led to many of the injuries in Gezi and led to further violations from there.
Do you see the government learning any lessons or taking positive steps post Gezi?
It’s very hard to say so. The government has had ample chances. The critical thing is bringing police abuses to justice. It’s early days and the Turkish legal system moves very slowly, but the fear that we have is that, as in previous demonstrations, police abuses will not be brought to justice. That has not happened and is very negative. The government’s statements after Gezi have also been very negative.
Also, this, we had the democratization package announced. There is nothing in that package that would prevent the abuses seen in the Gezi Park protests from happening again. Those should have been among the first things addressed, but they haven’t been at all. There is also nothing in the democratization package that addresses how dissenting opinions and freedom of expression are suppressed through the judicial system.