EU criticises Turkey over crackdown on protesters in Taksim Square
Turkish PM Erdogan in audience as Stefan Rule makes remarks
A protestor in Taksim Square yesterday. Photograph: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
The EU’s enlargement commissioner has slated the harsh crackdown on Turkish protesters over the past week, telling an Istanbul audience that included Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that a “swift and transparent” investigation into allegations of police abuses is required.
Stefan Fule made the remarks at a conference yesterday on Turkey’s decades-long ambition to join the EU, a goal that has faced obstacles including concerns over the country’s human rights record.
The gathering was held in a hotel near Taksim Square, epicentre of the protests that began more than a week ago and swiftly spread to more than 75 other cities and towns.
Four people – three protesters and a police officer – have been killed and thousands injured. The unrest was sparked after police attempted to break up a sit-in at Gezi, a park adjacent to Taksim Square that had been earmarked for a controversial construction project that included a shopping mall.
Accusations of police violence drew more people to the streets in protest. Mr Erdogan’s early characterisation of the demonstrators as extremists and looters served to transform the rallies into broader expressions of discontent over what critics say are his increasingly authoritarian tendencies.
Riot police have fired tear gas and water cannon at thousands of protesters calling for Mr Erdogan’s resignation.
Mr Fule told the conference that people in democratic societies had the right to hold peaceful demonstrations and that police brutality was unacceptable. “Excessive use of force by police against these demonstrations has no place in such a democracy,” he said.
“The duty of all of us, European Union members as much as those countries that wish to become one, is to aspire to the highest possible democratic standards and practices. These include the freedom to express one’s opinion, the freedom to assemble peacefully and freedom of media to report on what is happening as it is happening,”
In response, Mr Erdogan, maintaining the bullish stance he adopted at the start of the unrest, claimed that similar demonstrations in Europe would be dealt with more severely.
While acknowledging the use of excessive force against protesters, Mr Erdogan accused them of “vandalism and utter lawlessness”, and refused to back down from plans to develop Gezi Park.
The activists camped out there are equally defiant, saying they are determined to continue their protest.
“What we are against is terrorism, violence, vandalism and actions that threaten others for the sake of freedoms,” Mr Erdogan said, in comments that echoed a fiery address he gave to some 10,000 cheering supporters when he arrived at Istanbul airport earlier that morning following an official visit to north Africa.
“I’m open to anyone with democratic demands.”
In remarks to journalists who had travelled with him, Mr Erdogan claimed the protests were “undemocratic” and an attempt by a minority to “dominate” his majority supporters.
“If we were to remain indifferent in the face of such a thing, the 50 per cent who voted for [his party, the AKP] would tomorrow ask me why,” Mr Erdogan said.
The AKP midwifed the beginning of EU accession talks in 2005 but progress has been hobbled by disagreements over Cyprus, human rights concerns, and what Ankara believes are double standards on the part of some EU member states.
Support for EU membership continues to decline in Turkey, with some polls showing only 30 per cent of Turks in favour of joining.
Mr Erdogan told the conference yesterday that Turkey remained committed to joining the EU but he criticised the slow pace of accession.
“We are determined to advance on the path of EU, but it is not possible for Turkey to continue with one-sided efforts,” he said.