ISTANBUL — Riot police cordoned off streets, set up roadblocks and fired tear gas and water cannons to prevent anti-government protesters from converging on Istanbul’s central Taksim Square on Sunday, unbowed even as Turkey’s prime minister addressed hundreds of thousands of supporters a few miles away.
The contrasting scenes pointed to an increasing polarization in Turkish society — one that critics say Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has fueled with the fiery rhetoric he has maintained since protests began more than two weeks ago.
Police today maintained a lockdown on Taksim, the epicenter of more than two weeks of protests, by barring vehicles. But as the workweek began, authorities reopened a subway station at the square that had been shuttered Sunday when protesters tried to regroup.
A police crackdown Saturday evening that ended an 18-day peaceful sit-in at Taksim Square’s Gezi Park sparked unrest on the streets of Istanbul, while police also broke up demonstrations in the capital, Ankara, and Adana in the south.
Turkish trade unions urged their members to walk out of work today and join demonstrations in response to the crackdown.
However, the interior minister issued a stark warning to organizers of the one-day labor walkout that is aimed at maintaining pressure on Erdogan’s government.
“I am calling on public workers and laborers to not participate in unlawful demonstrations — otherwise they will bear the legal consequences,” Muammer Guler said. “Our police will be on duty as usual.”
The protests began in Gezi Park more than two weeks ago and spread to dozens of cities across the country. Erdogan has blamed them on a nebulous plot to destabilize his government. Five people, including a policeman, have died and more than 5,000 have been injured, according to a Turkish rights group.
Elected to his third term just two years ago with 50 percent of the vote and having steered his country to healthy economic growth, the protests are unlikely to prove an immediate threat to Erdogan’s government. But they have dented his international image and exposed growing divisions within Turkish society. Never before in his 10-year tenure has Erdogan faced such an open or broad expression of discontent.
Critics have accused him of an increasingly autocratic way of governing and of trying to impose his conservative Muslim views on the lifestyles of the entire population in a country governed by secular laws — charges he vehemently denies.
“They say, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, you are too harsh,’ and some (call me) ‘dictator,’” he said during his speech in his second political rally in as many days. “What kind of a dictator meets with people who occupy Gezi Park as well as the sincere environmentalists?” he questioned, referring to a meeting Thursday night with protest representatives.
Erdogan defended his decision to send police in to end the occupation of the park, where protesters had set up a tent city complete with a library, food distribution center, infirmary, children’s activity area and plant nursery. Water cannons and tear gas forced thousands to flee, and cleanup crews ripped down the tents and food stands overnight.
“I did my duty as prime minister,” he told his supporters. “Otherwise there would be no point in my being in office.”
About six miles away in the center of the city, police fired tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse thousands of protesters trying to converge on Taksim Square. In some neighborhoods, protesters set up barricades across streets while youths threw stones at police. In others, police broke up demonstrations with dense clouds of stinging tear gas that sent protesters fleeing into side streets. Some took refuge in nearby caf￩s and restaurants, where waiters clutched napkins to their faces to ward off the gas.
Similar scenes developed in Ankara, where around 50 demonstrators were injured, including a 20-year-old woman who was in critical condition after being hit in the back of her head with a tear gas canister, according to Selcuk Atalay, secretary-general of the Ankara Medical Association.
In the southern city of Adana, police clashed with stone-throwing demonstrators, the state-run Anadolu Agency said. A fight broke also broke out between the demonstrators, with one group trying to prevent the other from throwing stones at police. Anadolu said a total of 105 people were detained in Ankara, including a Russian and an Iranian.
The rights group Amnesty International said more than 100 people were believed to have been detained during Saturday’s demonstrations in Taksim and nearby districts, and said police were refusing to give details of their whereabouts.
Some among the thousands who fled Gezi Park during Saturday night’s police operation had still not managed to return home by Sunday afternoon, fearing being arrested by the police. Erdogan has repeatedly labeled those who attended the park protests as troublemakers and illegal groups, although he has also said he understood the complaints of those who had truly environmental concerns at heart.
One young man who had been demonstrating for days in Taksim Square said that as he and his friends fled the police operation in Gezi Park, they ran into a group of men armed with iron bars who chased them through the streets. It was unclear who they were.
Kenan, who spoke on condition his full name not be used for fear of arrest or being targeted in reprisals, said the group took refuge in an apartment building, where they were still hiding late Sunday afternoon.
Labor unions called for a one-day strike that would include doctors, lawyers, engineers and civil servants in support of the protesters. Strikes, however, often have little visible impact on daily life in Turkey.
In a potentially worrying development suggestive of a possible escalation in the violence, Erdogan said two police officers had been injured by bullets fired during the overnight unrest.
“(One) was shot with a bullet in the stomach, the other was shot in the leg,” he said.
On Sunday, TV footage showed police detaining white-jacketed medical personnel who had been helping treat injured protesters, leading them away with their hands cuffed behind their backs.
Istanbul Gov. Huseyin Avni Mutlu denied they were medical staff.
“They wore doctors’ white coats but had nothing to do with medicine or health. In fact, one of them had seven separate criminal records for theft,” he said on his Twitter account, contradicting earlier comments in which he had said several doctors had been detained.
Amnesty International noted that the health minister had previously stated that the improvised infirmaries set up by protesters to treat those injured in clashes or during police intervention were illegal and that doctors could face prosecution.
“It is completely unacceptable that doctors should be threatened with prosecution for providing medical attention for people in need,” Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s researcher on Turkey, said in a statement. “The doctors must be released immediately and any threat to prosecute them removed.”