Turkey’s government offered the first concrete gesture aimed at ending nearly two weeks of street protests yesterday when it proposed a referendum on a development project in Istanbul that triggered demonstrations which have become the biggest challenge to prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ten-year tenure.
Despite the offer, protesters continued to converge on Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the epicentre of repeated clashes between riot police firing tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets, and stone-throwing youths for 13 days – an early sign that the proposal hadn’t defused the demonstrators’ concerns.
Thousands of black-robed Turkish lawyers also joined the action yesterday, storming out of their courthouses, shouting about the alleged rough treatment of their colleagues by police amid the protests.
Sema Aksoy, deputy head of the Ankara lawyer’s’ association, said the lawyers were handcuffed and dragged. She called the police action an affront to the judicial system. “Lawyers can’t be dragged on the ground!” lawyers chanted as they marched out of an Istanbul courthouse.
Riot police stood off to the side, shields at the ready. The lawyers’ rallies added a new twist to the nearly two weeks of protests that started in Istanbul and spread to dozens of other Turkish towns and cities,
There were fierce overnight clashes in Taksim Square between police and protesters, who accuse Mr Erdogan of being authoritarian and anti-secular, charges he denies.
The proposal for a referendum came after Mr Erdogan, leader of the Islamic-rooted AK party, hosted talks with a group of activists in an attempt to end the stand-off, though critics in the streets said the 11-person delegation was not representative of the protesters.
The discussion was the first sign that Mr Erdogan was looking for an exit from the showdown, and came hours after some European leaders expressed concern about strong-arm Turkish police tactics and hopes that the prime minister would soften his stance.
“The most concrete result of the meeting was this: we can take this issue to the people of Istanbul in a referendum. We can ask the people of Istanbul if they want it [the barracks],” Justice and Development party spokesman Huseyin Celik said. “We will ask them: ‘Do you accept what’s going on, do you want it or not?’”
In a sign of the protesters’ suspicion about Mr Erdogan, several in Gezi Park said they thought the government would rig the referendum’s result – or balk at holding it at all. “I don’t think anything changed with that,” said protester Hatice Yamak, of the referendum plan. “We don’t think he will do it.”
Turkey’s Human Rights Foundation said Istanbul prosecutors had launched an investigation into allegations of excessive use of police force during the protests. The foundation said 620 people, including a one-year-old, were injured during the police crackdown early yesterday. Police detained about 70 people.
President Abdullah Gul, a more moderate voice than Mr Erdogan, said the government could not tolerate more unrest. He promised, however, that authorities would listen to protesters’ grievances.
“I am hopeful that we will surmount this through democratic maturity,” Mr Gul told reporters. “If they have objections, we need to hear them, enter into a dialogue. It is our duty to lend them an ear.”
The protests erupted on 31 May after a violent police crackdown on a peaceful sit-in by activists objecting to a development project replacing Gezi park with a replica Ottoman-era barracks. They then spread to 78 towns and cities across the country and have attracted tens of thousands of people nearly every night.
Mr Erdogan met 11 activists – including academics, students and artists – in his party offices in Ankara. Some leaders of civil society groups, including Greenpeace, had said they would not participate because of an “environment of violence” in the country.