Scores injured or detained during May Day clashes in Istanbul

Protesters defy Turkish government ban and attempt to march on Taksim Square

Turkish protestors clash with riot police in Istanbul, Turkey. Police used water cannon and tear gas to disperse protestors during a rally for May day. Photograph: Tolga Bozoglu/EPA

Turkish protestors clash with riot police in Istanbul, Turkey. Police used water cannon and tear gas to disperse protestors during a rally for May day. Photograph: Tolga Bozoglu/EPA

Thu, May 1, 2014, 19:11

Scores of people were injured or detained across Istanbul during May Day clashes between riot police and demonstrators.

The Istanbul governor’s office said 142 people were detained and 90 were wounded as confrontations escalated. Nineteen of the wounded were police officers. it said. Some of the injuries were serious, according to the Dogan news agency, citing the Istanbul Medical Chamber.

The agency’s report said that more than a dozen people were wounded by tear gas canisters and hundreds had received treatment at clinics for exposure to gas. Turkish police have been widely criticised by international rights groups for heavy-handed tactics on protesters in previous demonstrations.

Determined to defy a government ban, hundreds of demonstrators tried to march toward the city’s iconic Taksim Square, but were prevented by police water cannons and tear gas.

Last week city administrators said the square would be off limits to International Workers’ Day demonstrations and most points of entry were blocked.

Before being declared a national holiday in 2009, May 1st was a day of conflict that often led to violence across Turkey.

Taksim is symbolic for Turkey’s labour movement. In 197, 34 people were killed in the square during a May Day event when shots were fired into the crowd from a nearby building.

Prime minister Tayyip Erdogan, who warned last week against efforts to march on the square, has cast both last year’s street protests and a corruption scandal dogging his government since December as part of a plot to undermine him.

Pockets of protesters played cat-and-mouse in several neighbourhoods on the fringes of Taksim, a huge square surrounded by stores, restaurants and hotels usually thronged by commuters, shoppers and tourists.

Flag-waving demonstrators, some throwing fireworks and stones, at one point breached barricades in Besiktas, a neighbourhood near Taksim on the shores of the Bosphorus, before police forced them back into side streets.

In the working class Okmeydani district, members of leftist groups threw fire bombs and fireworks at police, who responded with rubber pellets and tear gas. Similar clashes erupted in March at the funeral of teenager Berkin Elvan, who had been in a coma after being wounded in last year’s unrest.

“Berkin’s murderers!” shouted one protester as he threw stones at police lines.

Mr Erdogan said last week he would not let unions march on Taksim and the government suggested instead the gathering should take place at a venue on the outskirts of Istanbul. The unions rejected that idea.

“We will be in Taksim despite the irrational and illegal ban. All roads will lead to Taksim on May Day, and our struggle for labour, equality, freedom, justice and peace will continue,” the main unions said in a joint statement on Wednesday.

On the main Istiklal shopping street leading to Taksim, hundreds of police, some in plain clothes others in riot gear, sat outside shuttered shops. Disgruntled tourists were searched at dozens of police checkpoints thrown up around the square. “This is supposed to be a friendly place for tourists. This is a terrible way to treat visitors,” said Mustafa, from Cairo.

The authorities issued a similar ban last year, leading to thousands of anti-government protesters fighting with police as they tried to breach barricades around the huge square, which in previous years was a focal point for labour demonstrations.

That violence was followed by mass protests that spread across Turkey late last May, in one of the biggest challenges to Mr Erdogan’s rule since his AK Party came to power in 2002.

“Give up your hope of Taksim,” Mr Erdogan said at a meeting of his ruling AK Party lawmakers in parliament last week. The prime minister has in the past dismissed protesters as “riff-raff” and “terrorists” and pointed to his AK Party’s strong showing in elections.

The AK Party dominated the electoral map in municipal elections on March 30th, retaining control of both Istanbul and the capital Ankara despite the corruption scandal and last summer’s unrest.

During a visit to Turkey earlier this week, German president Joachim Gauck called on Turkish authorities to protect peoples’ right to demonstrate, drawing an angry response from Mr Erdogan, who accused him of interfering in domestic politics. – Reuters/PA