The New York Times: Istanbul Park Becomes Scene of Violence After Reopening – Sebnem Arsu

Vadim Ghirda/Associated Press
Three women tried to run from clouds of tear gas as the police clashed with demonstrators on Monday in Istanbul.

ISTANBUL — The public park at the center of last month’s antigovernment protests in Turkey, sealed off for weeks to keep demonstrators at bay, quickly became the scene of more unrest after reopening on Monday, offering a volatile reminder of how divided the government and its opponents remain.

Dozens of people were injured and at least 32 were detained after scores of them streamed back to the site, Gezi Park, after the governor announced its reopening around noon, news reports said. When a large group of people led by protest organizers marched toward the park, it was confronted by the police, who dispersed the crowd with water cannons and tear gas, detaining those who refused to leave.

The park, in Taksim Square, became a focal point of outrage in June that initially stemmed from concerns over a government-backed plan to redevelop the site, the only green area in the district.

But the harsh police crackdown that soon followed gave rise to protests in more than 60 cities, mushrooming into a broad movement against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and what critics call his autocratic style after his more than a decade in office.

In all, four people died and dozens were seriously wounded in the tumult last month, according to the Turkish Physicians’ Association, including 11 cases in which people lost eyes after being struck by tear-gas canisters.

Mainstream news organizations in Turkey, fearful of government pressure, largely declined to cover the clashes, but images on a few television networks showed antiriot police officers chasing civilians down streets and firing water cannons as tear gas smoke rose in and around Taksim Square. Messages on Twitter, a hub of information during the media slowdown, showed pictures of the injured and of water cannons targeting small clusters of people.

At least six tear-gas canisters landed on the premises of the British Consulate, with Leigh Turner, the consul, sharing a photo on Twitter of guards reaching out to a smoking canister in the courtyard. Mr. Turner added a note that said, “All in Consulate-General safe.”

The head of the Istanbul Chamber of Physicians, as well as leaders of Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group that represents a large group of protesters, were detained, as security operations continued along Istiklal Street, a pedestrian road frequented by tourists, and on side streets late into the day.

“Police encircled us when we were walking to the park after the governor publicly opened it and invited all citizens to enjoy it,” Ali Ozyurt, an executive member of the Istanbul Chamber of Physicians, said as he rode in a police vehicle. “If it is a crime to go to a public park, the governor incited this crime, so is equally guilty.”

The exact number of injured was unclear, but a 17-year-old was in critical condition after being hit in the head by a tear-gas canister, said Sami Yilmazturk, a member of Taksim Solidarity.

“Gezi Park was full of children and the elderly after it was officially opened, and we were on our way to gather for a forum,” Mr. Yilmazturk said, in reference to public assemblies in city parks that have replaced street protests as a form of grass-roots organizing. “Police pushed people out of the park by force and, as we were approaching the park, asked us whether we had permission to enter the park. I have never heard of such a permission.”

Members of the Chamber of Architects — which recently won a court case against the city, canceling the large project to redesign Taksim Square and rebuild a commercial replica of an Ottoman-era military barracks in place of Gezi Park — were dragged and beaten by the police before being detained, Mr. Yilmazturk said.

On Monday, a video widely shared on the Internet showed a middle-aged man firing a gun into the air on a side street with civilians around, raising fears that the confrontation between the protesters and the police could pave the way for civilian clashes between the government’s supporters and its critics.

After midnight, the police continued to chase groups on side streets but left Gezi Park to protesters, who chanted, “This is just the beginning” and “Our struggle will continue,” news outlets reported.

Sebnem Arsu
8 July 2013