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Turkey: standing still is not a crime

An update from Andrew Gardner, Amnesty’s Turkey researcher in Istanbul.

On Monday night, one person went to Taksim Square and just stood still in a silent and symbolic protest against the recent violence there. The same evening, lots of other people did the same.

Now, some people there have headphones on, dancing to music to no one else can hear, or linking arms to do silent traditional Turkish dancing. After all the aggression over the last few weeks, it’s a very passive but also very effective and creative protest.

Police detained 16 people and then released them after a few hours. Standing still is not a crime in any penal code, so this just shows how arbitrary the detentions here have been – it’s simply intimidation.

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Erasing posts on Facebook and Twitter
Social media have been really important sources of information throughout, especially since many mainstream media fear the government and are self-censoring. Last Sunday, Prime Minister Erdoğan said  that social media users would be investigated.

So now people are panicking, trying to erase things off Twitter and Facebook. The Prime Minister also mentioned a new law to regulate social media use – we don’t know the details yet but it is clearly a threat.

A first meeting with tear gas
I came to Istanbul on 5 June. Everyone here was still in shock after the first wave of police violence. I had my first experience of tear gas on Tuesday 11 June. Peaceful protests were continuing in Taksim Square with a festival-like atmosphere. Then riot police moved in with shields and water cannon trucks.

Suddenly six or seven tear gas canisters were fired in our direction. I didn’t have a gas mask. You don’t feel it immediately, you just see white smoke. A few seconds later your eyes start watering, your skin feels like it’s burning, it really upsets your stomach, and you just need to get away. People were panicking around me, running away, and I couldn’t see properly. It affects a large area, so you are in it for a long time.

We had a meeting with Istanbul’s Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu  just afterwards, so we could give him very direct examples of unjustified force being used. He had just given public assurances that police wouldn’t intervene in Gezi park. But later I saw waves of tear gas coming through the park.

Tear gas is meant to disperse violent gatherings. But in Turkey it’s been used in huge quantities against peaceful protesters, and in confined areas such as homes and public buildings. It’s a serious risk to health when it’s used in this way. People have also told me it is being used as a weapon, resulting in critical injuries and perhaps even a death.

The Turkish Medical Association has documented nearly 8,000 people injured across Turkey, 59 very seriously and six with life threatening injuries.

Water cannon and sound bombs
Just after 8:30pm on Saturday 15 June, police started driving their vehicles across Taksim Square and firing a huge amount of gas canisters at small groups of peaceful protesters. They also kept using flash bangs (“sound bombs” in Turkish) – massive explosions of sound that cause panic. People were running in all directions.

The police careered through Gezi park in a water cannon truck, spraying pressurised water at people. We don’t know exactly what was in the water, but because of the sometimes bright orange colour it is probably a type of CS gas.

I spoke to many people with burns on their skin after being sprayed with water cannon. When I was sprayed, I had a shower straight away. The next day I had strange red discolourations across my hands, where maybe I hadn’t washed it off properly.

Massive outpouring of anger
People who fled Gezi park sought refuge in nearby hotels. At the Divan hotel, the police used water cannon and tear gas right outside, so the gas went right into the hotel lobby.

An enormous outpouring of public anger followed, not just because they’d cleared Taksim Square but also Gezi park. People there had been peacefully living in tents for three weeks, and the authorities had pledged not to intervene.

Tens of thousands of people in the centre of Istanbul attempted to get back into Taksim Square. I saw hundreds of protesters, shouting slogans and cheering, being repeatedly forced back by tear gas.

It was very difficult to get around to meetings and media interviews in different parts of Istanbul. The centre was a very dangerous place to be, because of the tear gas and reports of doctors, lawyers and journalists being targeted. You just don’t know what will come next.

Arrests, slapping and kicking
By that night we were getting reports from the Istanbul Bar Association about large numbers of detentions. People were calling, saying they couldn’t get in touch with their friends, or had seen someone being detained. They estimate that more than 800 people have been detained in Istanbul alone since the protests began – nearly half of them since since Saturday.

On Sunday there was more tear gas and water cannon. The difference now was that the police also attempted to make large numbers of arrests, chasing people down side streets, striking them, putting them in handcuffs and leading them away. Peaceful protesters, just standing and chanting in the street, and doctors providing emergency treatment to injured protesters.

It seems like lots of people were detained for a short amount of time and then released without seeing lawyers. We’re also investigating reports of ill-treatment − people being slapped by police officers, kicked, having their gas masks taken off. In Istanbul, people are now being arrested at home, and we’re working to find out why.

Take action to end violent repression and allow free expression in Turkey. Text TURKEY and your full name to 70505 now to sign our petition. Over 14s only please. Find out more about our action and how to write to the authorities

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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