Tear gas used on demonstrators in city centre square in Istanbul

Scenes of chaos follow campaign to stop city authorities destroying local park

Anti-government protesters clash with riot police in central Istanbul yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Murad Sezer

Anti-government protesters clash with riot police in central Istanbul yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Murad Sezer

 


Riot police and protesters turned a central Istanbul square into a scene of chaos yesterday following a week-long campaign to stop city authorities from destroying a local park.

Demonstrators opposing the destruction of Gezi Park, a green space in the city centre adjacent to Taksim Square, were tear gassed and forcibly removed from the area early yesterday morning. Police dressed in full riot gear and gas masks also burned dozens of tents belonging to activists. Several protesters were taken to hospital, some suffering from head wounds, as a result of police’s use of water cannons. Others collapsed inside shops after inhaling tear gas.

City authorities want to tear down the park and build a new mall and mosque to serve the city’s crowded centre in its place.

In recent weeks the Turkish government has passed a series of laws allowing authorities greater control of public life. The sale of alcohol after 10pm and within 100 metres of mosques has been made illegal while the morning-after pill can only be bought accompanied by a doctor’s prescription.

What is perceived as the government’s creeping Islamisation of public life and commercialisation of public land has been roundly criticised by the country’s city dwellers. Turkey’s secular status is enshrined in the country’s 1928 constitution.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is viewed as having Islamist leanings, was mayor of Istanbul from 1994-98 and, since becoming prime minister in 2003, has embarked on a campaign to modernise Turkey. His plans include building the first inter-continental metro system in Istanbul, set to open to the public later this year, and a third airport for the city, which he claims will be the world’s largest.

The proposed airport, however, would result in the felling of millions of trees north of the city. “The demolition of parts of Gezi Park show disrespect by the city’s municipality,” said Ekrem Eddy Guzeldere, a political analyst with the European Stability Initiative based in Istanbul. “When facing protest, it has ordered police to use disproportionate violence against peaceful protesters.”

But Mr Ergodan’s policies have proved popular with many Turks, with efforts to bring an end to the 30-year conflict with militant Kurds resulting in a ceasefire earlier this year used as one such example. Istanbul is also a candidate city for the 2022 Olympics and many people back the Islamist prime minister for turning the country’s economy around in the past 10 years.

However, public reaction to the government’s latest round of laws has been prompt. Protests in Ankara and Istanbul have been occurring with increasing frequency since the May Day protests earlier this month.