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Turkish Protesters Clash With Police

Aired June 11, 2013 - 15:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Indeed, welcome to viewers around the world and in the United States as we continue CNN's breaking news coverage of these demonstrations that are continuing in Taksim Square, in the center of Istanbul, which is in Turkey, which is, of course, one of the main regional players in that region, a very critical ally of the West, including the United States.

Prime Minister Erdogan forging a deep political and personal bond with President Obama here in the United States and with many leaders in Western Europe, also vital as the world deals with issues and crises like Iran and Syria.

Tonight, this is now 12 hours into a perpetual standoff between now police and protesters in Taksim Square. It started just about two weeks ago with a peaceful protest by elements of people in Istanbul who were trying to protect the environment, they said. They were protesting and objecting to a government plan to turn a pond near Taksim Square into a development, a mall and other such things.

Then over the last several weeks, we have seen how those protests spread across the country, even to the capital, Ankara, and there have been all sorts of images broadcast around the world of police responding by water cannon and tear gas, protesters using Molotov cocktails and fireworks.

And the question really is, how does this end? Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was out of the country when these protests first began and by all accounts was taken by surprise, this being the first major challenge to his rule. He's now in his third term. He served about 11 years in power at the helm. And after all the progress that he has brought to Turkey, sidelining the very intrusive Turkish military from politics, instituting democratic reforms, instituting even reforms in the police system and, indeed, the judicial system, there are many Turks who now believe that he is growing way too authoritarian and too arrogant.

At first, Prime Minister Erdogan dismissed these protesters as louts, as riffraff. He then said that he wanted to talk to at least some of them those he said who were the legitimate protesters. He's condemned what he calls people who have joined this movement and hijacked it. He says that they are trying to undermine Turkey, trying to damage Turkey's booming economy and trying to give Turkey a bad name.

We want to go right now to our correspondents on the scene. We have been talking to Nick Paton Walsh and Arwa Damon. And anyone who has been following this for the last several hours has seen them with their gas masks on and tear gas is fired.

What we can see right now is that the pictures show a fairly quieter situation than was the case even half-an-hour ago. Seems to be a series of cat and mouse games between the police and the protesters with the police coming in and the protesters being shunted aside or running to escape the tear gas and then surging back. Now it looks a little quieter.

Nick there in Taksim Square, what does it feel like on the ground now?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you mentioned, things quieting down, Christiane.

We have seen a number of riot police now moving towards the road that is on the left of Gezi Park, firing a substantial volley of tear gas in that direction. I think through the fog of my gas mask and the burnt light here, you can see in sort of the embers of the fire some protesters are moving down that particular road.

I believe that's what the riot police were aiming this massive volley of tear gas again at. If wafted up across the square towards our live position here, meaning of course I have to wear this gas mask. So, apologies for how hard it is to hear me.

But we're trying to see exactly how many protesters have gathered down that vital left-hand road that heads down Gezi Park that has been the scene of so many of the standoffs here.

But, Christiane, this is just a repeat cycle of violence between both sides in many ways. I have to confess, having said that, I haven't seen in the dark here exactly how the protesters are responding to the police, but each time they rally back in the center, they're tear gassed again, to the point now where the last volleys have been so intense they seem now to have been settling down the side streets away from Taksim Square itself.

It's hard to make how many. I think in this side street here, I see possibly 50. There have been in the past many down the other side roads here too. The question of course now is we have no question, no doubt that the Turkish police have (INAUDIBLE) equipment and the number if necessary in force. Exactly how do they intend to use that to restore control here? Because as you were saying, this is exactly what Turkey's economy doesn't need to broadcast -- Christiane.


AMANPOUR: Nick, you have been covering this virtually from the beginning. You have been in Ankara. You have been elsewhere.

You have seen it evolve. How heavy-handed has the riot police been tonight compared to what you have seen before? Are there armored columns moving against people? Are they standing back and using the tear gas and the water cannons? Give me a sense of the police action tonight compared with perhaps the worst a week or so ago?

WALSH: Let's take you back a little bit about eight, nine days ago in Ankara, the capital, where police were roaming the streets, small numbers of protesters facing them, some occasionally chucking rocks, but the sheer excess of tear gas being used then was remarkable.

They even -- police even kicked our cameraman seemingly for no reason. I saw them use a baton on another perfectly harmless protester simply walking down the street. That was menacing in some ways. Then there was a lull in which negotiation took over. They wanted to talk to protesters.

Throughout today, when we first ran to the square here and riot police had moved in, they were calm. They strolled, it seemed. They didn't immediately surge in looking for confrontation, but they found it quite quickly. It's fair to say that some of the protesters are hard- core here. Some of them were holding the flags of Kurdish or ultra- Marxist-Leninist parties. They were equipped for a fight.


WALSH: They had fireworks aiming -- aiming them at armored vehicles. They had rocks, too.

AMANPOUR: All right. Nick, thank you.

I need to go now to Istanbul, I believe, and to talk to Saban Disli, who is a member of the AKP, the foreign relations committee, and a member of parliament.

What can you tell me -- thank you first for joining me, Mr. Disli -- about how the prime minister is going to resolve this standoff?

SABAN DISLI, MEMBER OF TURKISH PARLIAMENT: I think things will gradually have to go down.

We at first have to separate those vandalous, extremist terrorists from the peaceful demonstrators, environmentalists or other people who demand something. The prime minister tomorrow will be speaking from representatives of E.U., from representatives of movie stars, or I don't know how you call them, or other interest groups.

Today, in the (INAUDIBLE) party group (INAUDIBLE) I am sure people have told you, he has requested from the people, please stop this. Let's talk, because it -- all of this damaging small business owners, the hotel owners and freedom in especially Istanbul and the rest of the places where these demonstrations are taking place.

So this is actually out of environmentalist demonstrations. There are groups who are to turn this into a cause. They are really using the Molotov cocktails and everything. I'm sure, your people, cameramen, are showing it around. They are damaging almost everything. So, we have to first -- I think this morning, the governor of Istanbul has, by using the social media and the television stations, called the people, not the people in the Gezi Park and the Taksim, that they can stay there. Of course, as I said, the prime minister and the other representatives of (INAUDIBLE) will be talking to their representatives and try to separate those those vandalous terrorists from this peaceful group. AMANPOUR: OK.

Mr. Disli, it appears that the government said it would not go into the Gezi Park area, would not send the police into that area, and then we saw on live television more than an hour ago that at least tear gas and some police presence did go into that area.

How are the people meant to respond when they think that they're being told one thing and quite another thing happens?

DISLI: No, what has been told is exactly being followed up.

We tell the people -- and actually they -- you can see they created a human chain. Those demonstrators, peaceful demonstrators , will not let those terrorist groups in them, because they are being used by terrorist groups. They are really clashing with everyone, the banks, and the police and the public buildings and everything.

So first we have to separate them with the other peaceful group. And we have to do something to separate them. Prime minister today requested please go home and let's talk with your representatives in the party group. Otherwise, we cannot let things go like that. We are negotiating (INAUDIBLE) we know how to handle these kinds of things. We have trained for this.

For the first day, of course, talking with the president, everybody almost apologized that there was extreme use of police force. But now police is ordered not to do anything unless they are being attacked. And this standing is still continuing.

But after these talks with these representatives, we cannot go like this. And how did you handle Occupy in New York, Occupy in London, or whatever demonstrations? We have to stop this, because, otherwise, it is demoralizing our economy. It will be demoralizing our people.

At the end of the day, we are a democratically elected government. And these elections have been observed by all international observations -- observations, and they have written the (INAUDIBLE) that this was fair elections. We are only being criticized by the 10 percent threshold, nothing other than that.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Disli, I don't think anybody disputes the fair elections in Turkey. And, indeed, it seems that Mr. Erdogan won at least 50 percent the last time around. So, his victory is clear and it is solid.

But I hear you talking about extremists, and I hear you talking about terrorists. And that does seem to me an over-exaggeration of who these people are.

DISLI: No. No.

AMANPOUR: So, I want to ask you -- let me ask you something. Do you accept that even those who voted for Mr. Erdogan are feeling the burden of an increasingly authoritarian prime minister?

DISLI: This is what the international media altogether trying to create the image.


AMANPOUR: No, sir, this is what the people there are saying.


DISLI: This was Erdogan when he was the mayor of Istanbul. This was Erdogan 10 years ago and this is the same Erdogan.

And you cannot change people standing after the -- they (INAUDIBLE) so this is now new Erdogan. This has never been new Erdogan. He has been the A.K. party government or the existing government has been very open to the people. But since last three, four months, the opposition party started this motto, the -- Erdogan as dictator in Europe.

And now the international media by using the social media is trying to create such an image. He is not like that. He has been talking with all international leaders. I mean, how can a democratically elected leader, so many people at 3:00 a.m. in the morning, over 200,000 people meeting him on the streets? And the international media, as I said, altogether are not behaving biasedly -- are kind of...


AMANPOUR: All right.

DISLI: ... and trying to create such an image.

And this is very bad for Turkish economy. It will affect the -- all other economies. And we have just received an investment grade. And this is not going to help at all to the Turkish economy.

AMANPOUR: All right, one last question. The prime minister said this is not a Turkish spring. Do you worry within the A.K. party that this could develop into a much bigger challenge?

DISLI: No, because I think end of today, except those groups which I told you exist all the time they use the motto, we don't want. We want (INAUDIBLE) in Istanbul. They said, no, we don't want be it. We want (INAUDIBLE) Istanbul. We want (INAUDIBLE) their only thing is, we don't want.

We (INAUDIBLE) from those who really environmentalists, and their demands should be met.

AMANPOUR: All right.

DISLI: Of course, we have received the message from the people.

But you always know and trust the people's power. This is how we came to the power and then to govern there this country. We understand it. We received the message. This has been told to the people by acting minister when the prime minister was out of country, by president, by every party member. AMANPOUR: OK.

DISLI: And after one week at every occasion, at the Cabinet, at the (INAUDIBLE) everywhere, we are discussing the situation. And, again, we have to use international (INAUDIBLE) to stop this violence. And the...


AMANPOUR: Mr. Disli, Mr. Disli, thank you very much indeed for joining us, Saban Disli, a member of the A.K. party and a member of parliament.

And we're going now to Nick Paton Walsh in Istanbul again near Taksim Square.

You heard what Mr. Disli said. We have heard the protesters. We have got their message. We understand what they want.

What are they saying to you?

WALSH: Certainly, the people who continue to come on to the streets -- and we have seen some of the dynamism of the protests ebb to a degree because you have also seen a slowing in the police heavy-handed tactics.

But many of them simply feel disenfranchised. They simply feel the that creeping conservatism of the Erdogan administration and much of the cynicism that they have been promoting, not enforcing, but promoting on much of the population here, popular amongst the 50 percent who vote for Prime Minister Erdogan, but less popular amongst those secular groups who have formed part of the demonstrations we have seen here over the weekend.

Christiane, I should just let you know the live pictures you're seeing involve further volleys of tear gas. There have been very small numbers of protesters moving back in the square towards police. That's been met with another substantial volley of tear gas pouring out of square now.

But the real question many of the protesters have been asking themselves is exactly how can our voices be heard in this particular condition? We come to the streets for freedom of assembly like this and are met with police tactics of this nature. Are we being allowed our right to express ourselves in a democracy?

Now, of course, there's a payoff to that. They have to keep some sort of functioning economy here in the very heart of Istanbul. You can imagine how in many capitals across the world sit in protest that disrupt traffic and business won't be tolerated indefinitely.

But it's the sheer volume of tear gas, it's the heavy-handedness of the police, it's the injuries reported, it's the tear gas rounds I'm seeing fired now in the dark towards protesters right in front of me, that's what's encouraged condemnation from Washington, from the European Union, and asked many to say to themselves, well, if you are going to permit free protests, at exactly what point is it acceptable to bring in riot police at this particular level? -- Christiane.

AMANPOUR: I don't know whether you heard what he said to me when I asked him about an increasingly authoritarian streak in Erdogan, and he said this is Erdogan who's always been like this, whether he was mayor of Istanbul or ever since he's been president. Erdogan hasn't changed.

But, clearly, the people are changing. And it looks like, no matter how this is resolved, it will have changed the people's perception of what they can and can't do. Do you think from what you have heard from them that they want the government overthrown? What do they want, beyond the original protest about the park?

WALSH: Christiane, I'm sorry. I have had to put my gas mask on, because the tear gas is wafting towards us, but I can continue to talk.

People here are divided in the outcome they want to see. There are some who chant and their main focus of their chants is they want to see the resignation of Tayyip Erdogan. But that's not -- you have seen other protests, I'm sure, yourself in Ukraine or Thailand entirely focused on the dismissal and resignation of the head of the -- of the functionary, of the prime minister or president, for example.

This has not been the singular goal here. They have put forward their (INAUDIBLE) platform demands, which wanted the resignation of those behind the police violence, wanted Gezi Park to be left intact, that wanted tear gas to no longer be used in circumstances like this.

The resignation of the democratically government wasn't central to those demands. So, while the protesters are in some ways united in their anger at police tactics, they're not united in the kinds of demands they seek from the Erdogan administration.

And that of course gives the Erdogan administration a significant advantage in negotiation, because they're not dealing with people who have a specific aim that they can whittle away. This violence we're seeing in the center of the city has been fueling so much of the popular response of the past 10 days, people simply moving out to express their anger at the heavy-handed tactics of police.

And that was (INAUDIBLE) because the larger the crowds, the more the police violence. And then you saw more people coming on to the streets. We have to see how this heavy-handed response plays out in the hours ahead, Christiane.


And on the live pictures, as you're talking, it looks like we have seen pictures of columns of these police helmeted and in full riot gear walking along there.

I want to go now to Ozga Moncher (ph), a columnist from the radical newspaper in Istanbul.

Mr. Moncher (ph), what do you think is going to be the end state here? How is this going to end?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, nobody really knows how it's going to end.

As long as Mr. Erdogan doesn't step back and accept at least some of the reasonable requests of the platform, I don't think -- I can't foresee an end to that. And the people are asking for the responsible of all this violence to be tried or at least taken -- they want the appropriate measures to be taken and they want the end of this project for Taksim, Gezi Park. And for the moment, nothing has been done. And the police violence has been increasingly (INAUDIBLE) in the public life.

AMANPOUR: You heard the member of parliament there telling us that the prime minister still intends to meet with a group of protesters, particularly those who call themselves environmental protesters, regarding the plans for Gezi Park.

Do you think that that will happen, and how do you think that conversation is going to go? What can the prime minister say to allay their concerns?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I don't really know who are going to meet with the prime minister.

But it has been 14, 15 days right now. And he has waited so long to meet with people. And I have been following his speeches. He has given six consecutive speeches in one day. And he was very harsh. And the fact that he's being that harsh and just using very authoritarian language does -- really taught the people to -- that does not encourage people to have a dialogue with him.

And I don't know who the people are who are the people chosen to speak with him, but I hope that he can -- that the dialogue channels will be open and that that can help to end the situation. But the police attack that we have witnessed today won't really help the dialogue at all.

AMANPOUR: Ozga Moncher (ph), thank you very much indeed for joining us.

And we continue to welcome our viewers around the world and here in the United States as we cover this breaking story in Istanbul, Turkey.

We're going to go straight now to Arwa Damon, who is in Gezi Park.

Arwa, what is the situation there right now?


It's very fluid. There was a fair amount of pretty intense tear gas that was lobbed into here not too long ago, forcing a lot of those who have been camped demonstrating in the park to actually push back. People have been trying to move forward, getting pushed back as well.

A lot of people really expressing their determination. We were earlier hearing chants of people saying, this is just the beginning, that the resistance is going to continue.

Now, I'm joined by Melich (ph). She's 27 years old. She's an I.T. professional. And she's been here pretty much since the very beginning.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Since Friday, actually.

Just began as a peaceful demonstration here. And we're not vandalizing anything. We're not trying to throw stones at police. We're just trying to stay here and protest against this place being a shopping mall.

DAMON: So there's something of a difference between what you're trying to do here and some of the clashes that we're seeing taking place. And we did earlier see members from the Gezi Park administration try...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. Actually, I have seen a lot of times.

There are some people trying to vandalize stuff and then lots of others trying to stop those people. Most of the time, we think that those are probably civilian police.


DAMON: Now you heard some of what the prime minister said earlier today.


DAMON: How did that make you feel and where do you think this situation goes from here?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's actually very disappointing, because we just shoved off. We are just trying to make ourselves heard. This is a place of community. And we are using this place.

And we do not want a shopping mall here and other things beyond that. But the prime minister repeatedly refused to hear. He's just saying that he is the president of the 50 of the country and rest of us is ignored. It's pretty disappointing.

DAMON: Now, this obviously started out about this park, has since become about so much more.


DAMON: What is it about for you and for the others who are here today? What does this all mean? And, again, resolved, what can the government do to try to end this situation?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Actually, up to this point, it's been kind of building up step by step.

The government and prime minister is trying to get involved in our lives. And it's actually beyond the personal space. So, I'm pretty ashamed to tell that I'm not a political person. This is my first demonstration, by the way.

This is the first time that I am -- that the police is against me. This is the first time in my life so -- but kind of -- things kind of did build up to this point because of the government and their regulations so far. So, it's -- and most of the people are like that. I'm seeing classmates, work mates here. And those people are really peaceful.

DAMON: Not the extremists that the government is...



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm just wearing a flimsy mask. This isn't how a violent person behaves.

DAMON: So, again, but what is it that the government can do at this point to end this escalating situation that is getting worse by the day?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Actually, what they can do is to just stop denying that this is illegal and vandalizing it. What they can do is ask the people what they can do with this place and other stuff as well. They have been making polls about the shape of the ships across -- with areas across the (INAUDIBLE) and why not this? Why (INAUDIBLE) what to do with this place.

DAMON: So, but for you and for those that are -- for the government to reverse its policy about what it wants to do to the park, but what about for everybody else? Because the situation -- more now, so how do you get all of that to end?


But most of the stuff is not (INAUDIBLE) the government can act on a whim. It shouldn't be able to do that. (INAUDIBLE) it's not -- it doesn't start and end with the elections. That's what we want. We want to be heard and respected, not -- not -- we try not to feel ourselves like criminals. We're not. We're not vandalizers. We're not criminals. But the police is acting like we are.

DAMON: And are you going to stay here all night, nothing is going to drive you back?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I may not be able to stay here all night because I have work to do, but, I mean, I have a job. But I will come back here day after day, night after night, after work, at the weekends, because, you know, it's just -- there's a limit that you can take, you know?

After that, it's -- it's just that we cannot take this anymore. The government shouldn't be able to say what they can do with the people, what it can do with this community. It shouldn't be that easy.

DAMON: Thank you. Thank you very much for joining us. And, you know, Christiane, that's been a sentiment that we have been really hearing throughout the entire day here. It started out about a small environmental issue, escalated into so much more. And, really, a lot of the people that we're actually seeing up here in the park like Melich (ph) are professionals. They don't necessarily spend all day here, but we do see their numbers swelling at night.

And now it's become and escalated to a certain degree where they don't just want to see the plan to demolish this park reversed, but they also are going to want to see certain reforms being put into place by this government. It really needs to begin to change its attitude towards the population, towards that percentage of the population that did not vote for it for it to really begin to appease the wide variety and array of demonstrators that we're seeing in Istanbul today.

AMANPOUR: Arwa, thank you.

And, of course, it remains to be seen as to whether some of these protesters, certainly as the prime minister's been saying, the environmentalist groups which started the peaceful protests, actually do hold talks with him tomorrow, as everybody is saying is on the books.

Now, in the meantime, there are reports coming through. Reuters news reports say that the mayor of Istanbul, Kadir Topbas, is saying that the police will continue operations on Taksim Square day and night until it's cleared. Those are the words of the mayor of Istanbul.

So, what you have been watching over the last several hours is CNN's breaking news coverage of what's going on in Istanbul. This is now nearly two weeks of protests that has ebbed and flowed, began May 31 as a peaceful sit-in against the building of a mall in a green part, in Gezi Park of Taksim square.

And we have seen that that has been spread around the country over the last week or so, as people jump on this bandwagon and protest what they say is an increasing authoritarianism from their prime minister.

The government has been saying that, look, there are legitimate protesters and we want to talk to them. And we understand them, but there are also -- quote -- "vandals, extremists, terrorists" who are hijacking this and trying to bring down Turkey's economy and ruin Turkey's image abroad.