Violent police crackdown casts shadow on Turkey’s rapprochement with Europe
ISTANBUL - Violent action by Turkish police against a sit-in protest by women in Istanbul could make it harder for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government to win closer ties with Europe amid a crisis in relations with the United States.
Officers used tear gas and water cannons to disperse a crowd in central Istanbul on August 25. Police closed off Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s main shopping street, channelling bewildered tourists, who normally fill the street during the summer holiday season, onto side streets.
Approximately 50 people were detained during the unrest but were released. Police officers physically attacked opposition lawmakers who went to show support for the so-called “Saturday Mothers,” women demanding justice for their relatives who disappeared during violence in the Kurdish region in the 1980s and 1990s. Several days after the confrontation, the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) said demonstrations by the women would be banned but activists said the weekly rallies would continue.
A massive police presence prevented a march on September 1 from reaching Istiklal Caddesi. Protesters said they would return September 8.
Critics in Turkey and Europe said the Erdogan government violated democratic norms of the European Union, which Turkey wants to join, in a crackdown on dissent since the failed coup attempt in 2016. Ankara insists it is committed to democratic rules but must defend the state against deadly enemies.
Mithat Sancar, a deputy speaker of Turkey’s parliament and a member of the pro-Kurdish opposition group Peoples’ Democratic Party, said the Istanbul sit-in was banned by authorities only hours before it was scheduled to start.
Even after the official end of Turkey’s state of emergency in July, the Erdogan government is determined to crush all forms of public dissent, Sancar said in an interview at the scene as the police action took place. “They think: ‘No one can do anything against us, not even internationally,’” he said. “Human rights and European values are being trampled upon every day.”
The police action occurred before a visit by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to Ankara on September 5 and a state visit by Erdogan to Berlin on September 28. Ankara has signalled it wanted to strengthen political and economic relations with Europe as a counterweight against worsening ties with the United States as a row over the detention of US missionary Andrew Brunson in Turkey simmers.
Sancar said the government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel should make it clear that upholding human rights was a precondition for better ties. “Germany has to address this” in the upcoming meetings, he said.
Riot police on August 25 dispersed unarmed female protesters and their supporters who had planned to attend the 700th meeting of the Saturday Mothers in Istanbul.
Following the example of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, a movement demanding justice for victims of Argentina’s military dictatorship, Turkey’s Saturday Mothers have been campaigning regularly on Galatasaray Square on Istiklal Caddesi since 1995. They want information on the fate of relatives who disappeared when the Turkish state used extrajudicial killings to fight alleged Kurdish extremists.
Human rights activists say thousands of people died in what they call a dirty war against alleged Kurdish activists. Among the participants led away by police on August 25 was Emine Ocak, 82, whose son Hasan disappeared in 1995 and whose body has never been found.
Erdogan met with some of the Saturday Mothers in 2011 and promised to help them to investigate possible crimes by the state but his government banned the demonstration on August 25, arguing the meeting was supported by the outlawed separatist group Kurdistan Workers’ Party, seen as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the West.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said extremists were trying to use the Saturday Mothers for their own ends. “Were we supposed to close our eyes to motherhood being exploited by terrorist organisations and being used as a pretext for terror?” he asked.
Sancar said the Erdogan government, which was shaken by countrywide unrest in 2013, was nervous because the meeting of the Saturday Mothers had attracted support throughout Turkey’s opposition. “They are afraid of mass protest,” Sancar said.
Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director of Human Rights Watch, described the detentions as “shameful, cruel treatment of families seeking justice for state crimes.” Demonstrators in Istanbul said they would return to Galatasaray Square despite the police intervention.
The violence came as politicians in Germany debate possible economic assistance measures for Turkey, where the currency, the lira, has lost almost 40% of its value against the US dollar since the start of the year. The crisis has been made worse by the row with the United States over the detention of Brunson. Washington has introduced economic sanctions against Ankara and has threatened additional punitive measures.
To enlist European help, the Turkish government said it would revive EU-inspired reforms, an area that has been dormant for years. A meeting of a governmental committee overseeing reform policies was the first such gathering since 2015. Government critics dismissed the move as window dressing. and prominent columnist Hasan Cemal called it “a joke.”
Rebecca Harms, a member of the EU parliament for the German Green Party, said Merkel’s government should “not act as if Turkey was on its way to normalisation, domestically or in its foreign relations.”
Responding to questions via e-mail, Harms said Merkel should take Erdogan to task during the Turkish president’s visit to Berlin, his first trip to the German capital in four years. The chancellor should tell Erdogan “that relations with Turkey only get worse” if Ankara keeps its current course, Harms said.