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Turkish Protesters Clash With Police

Aired June 11, 2013 - 15:30   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: 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.

Who exactly these terrorists are, we're not quite sure, but we've been trying our best to follow this, and every in and out. So far there's been a sort of a cat-and-mouse game played on Taksim Square this evening with police coming in using their water cannons and their other tear gas, and the protesters have on some occasions been using firecrackers and Molotov cocktails.

We want to go now to Andrew Gardner who's with Amnesty International, and he has had a team of police -- or rather, people monitoring the police there. We're going to go to him as soon as we can.

Let's go to Nick Paton Walsh who's also on Taksim Square for another check on what exactly the state is right now.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Christiane, you can't see this on camera in the dark, but a very small group of protesters are just outside down the street below our bureau, trying to use corrugated iron as a shield. Some of them edging towards police; some, it seems, edging up on the side of Gezi Park, too ...


... towards these two. They just consistently reply with another barrage of tear gas. A lot being fired. It's pretty much omnipresent there, the fog of tear gas across the square at the moment.

What you had said there about Reuters reporting, the mayor of Istanbul saying this will continue until they have control of Taksim Square. Well, that begs the question, how do you define Taksim Square?

The police are evidently trying to exercise their control over what you would normally refer to as Taksim, and there's Gezi Park, appended to it. (Inaudible) seeking to move in there. It must be increasingly difficult inside with the amount of tear gas in this particular area right now to feel safe and comfortable in Gezi, a heavily wooded, secluded area.

This square foggy with tear gas, I'm sure you can see those pictures yourself. You have to really ask yourself, what are the police strategies here to stop the standoff, to stop the to-and-fro, the cat- and-mouse, as you described it, and actually retain control of areas, move protesters on, because as you see right now, this particular back and forth could go on for yet more hours and I've already been watching this for about 14 so far today, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: All right. Nick, you raise the question as to how this is going to actually be cleared in accordance with what the mayor of Istanbul has said.

He's says -- and he's calling for people to stay away for their own safety. He took to television in a brief statement to say, quote, "We'll continue our measures in an unremitting manner, whether day or night, until marginal elements are cleared and the scare is open to people."

That seems to be the way the government is describing this entire protest week or more, that there are legitimate protesters and then there are, quote, "marginal elements," and, they say, extremists and terrorists.

We want to go now to Andrew Gardner of Amnesty International, as I just said. He's fielded a team on Taksim Square to monitor what the police are doing.

Andrew, what can you tell me about how the police are behaving insofar as your people are observing?

ANDREW GARDNER, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL (via telephone): What we've seen all day today is extreme police violence against peaceful demonstrators.

There can be absolutely no justification whatsoever for this level of violence and it comes directly following the prime minister's inflammatory statements against the protesters today, and he bears personal responsibility for this violence. AMANPOUR: What have you -- are you standing in Taksim now and how do you think that this is going to end?

You've just heard what we've said about the mayor of Istanbul who's asking people to stay away for their own safety and who says the police will continue, quote, "unremitting efforts" to clear this square, no matter how long it takes.

GARDNER (via telephone): I'm at Amnesty International's office, which is in Taksim close to the square, and I've been in both Gezi Park and Taksim Square throughout the day.

And I think what's been obvious through the past two weeks of demonstrations, that each time when the government uses even more force against the protesters, the protesters just come back in greater numbers and their anger is even greater and they're even more determined to protest.

So what it looks like is happening now is an escalation of the situation, not a calming measure which should have been brought by the government.

AMANPOUR: Of course as we're looking at these live pictures, at least in some areas where the cameras are directed, things do seem to be a lot calmer.

What has the general sort of trend been? Do people go home at night, come back again? What does it look like in terms of an evolving situation over the last several days?

GARDNER (via telephone): Over the last several days, tens of thousands of people have been filling Taksim Square every evening, when the biggest number's have been the people protesting in the evening and through the night.

When the protests started, this was certainly true in Istanbul, in Ankara and also in the other major city in Izmir in the west. So I think we can expect the same thing to happen now and for the anger of the protesters to be felt not just in Istanbul but in the other major cities all across Turkey as well.

And that's why Amnesty International is calling on the prime minister to urgently intervene, to end the inflammatory language and to commit to what he previously had said, which was negotiate with the protesters to prevent further death and further injury.

AMANPOUR: Now the prime minister himself says that some four people have been killed through these last 12 days or more of these protests.

Do you have any sense that there will be a meeting tomorrow between the prime minister and some of the protesters? And can you see a way to resolving that in such a meeting?

GARDNER (via telephone): I think that's the only way to resolve it. However, I've got no confidence that that meeting will take place. And even if it does take place, it will take place after such an escalation and such extreme police violence that it's very difficult to negotiate a situation now, given that (inaudible) as late as today that no intervention would take place in Gezi Park and that's exactly what happened.

And the prime minister committed to negotiated settlement with the protesters a short time ago and then changed that and committed to ending the protests by sort of personal edict.

So this is what's going to happen, but it's going to be so much more political after this night of violence.

AMANPOUR: Andrew Gardner of Amnesty International, thank you very much.

And I want to go back to Nick Paton Walsh who has been covering this virtually from the beginning and really reset for our viewers how this all started and how it sort of spun out of control, how these original protesters in Gezi Park then saw their protests morph into something much bigger and much more widespread.

Nick, walk us through that.

WALSH: Christiane, 12 days ago there was a protest in Gezi Park. And you're hearing, of course, a prayer behind me, ringing out over this battlefield almost in central Istanbul.

A central part of Taksim Square, Gezi Park, one of the last elements of greenery in this increasingly developed city center, that attracted a protest because there were conservationists angry at the prime minister's grandiose plan to eventually, at one point, put in a shopping mall then it became a museum, but effectively tear down those trees.

There was a heavy police response to move those protesters on. And in response to that police action, more people came out onto the streets, growing angry. Increasingly heavy-handed tactics from the police to disperse them. That spread to other cities across Turkey.

Again, the police responded to more people on the street by more tear gas and increased use of a strong arm and then we saw one particular night where it seemed like most of the major population centers of the country had some sort of standoff between protesters, often angry purely at police tactics and police firing tear gas.

We then had a lull and those clashes became more periodic. And we saw negotiations, certainly when I was in the capital of Ankara, police willing to talk to protesters and agreeing that you don't throw rocks, we won't fire tear gas.

But then deadlines began to be talked of. There's this ominous suggestion that a legal protest wouldn't be allowed. Prime Minister Erdogan, consistently referring to these protesters being marginals, extremists, as you just heard yourself. And then this morning, last night, we saw the numbers of people in this square had ebbed significantly. There was a rowdy protest throughout the weekend, joyous, people drinking, dancing, music. Pretty much in some ways organized.

But as the working week got underway, those numbers thinned. As I walked through the square about midnight last night, there really were very few people. And, in fact, even those who had camped in Gezi Park, people in tents, almost an alternative utopian community they tried to create there in a short space of time, they were ebbing in number, too.

Of course, this morning police have seized upon those lower numbers and decided to move in. Now when we first came here, they were strolling in. They were calm in their approach. They weren't wearing -- from what I saw, they weren't wearing their helmets or particularly heavily armored.

But then protesters responded. There were clashes. It's fair to say I've seen during the day a hardcore element in the protesters who were prepared to repel police tactics. Whether that's something they would normally do or something they felt license to do because of heavy- handed police tactics earlier on, it's unclear.

But I've seen protesters fire fireworks, throw Molotov cocktails and rocks at the police. In fact, at one point, engulf a police vehicle, an armored police vehicle in flames, it was so heavily hit by Molotov cocktails.

The police did not respond today with the same vehemence and relentlessness we've seen in the past, but as the day's continued and the clashes have continued, we've heard more stun grenades, we've seen more tear gas.

And then tonight, as police piled out of the square and moved into a corner side street, suddenly vanishing, protesters moved back into Taksim. Again, that festive atmosphere started. Thousands of people gathering and suddenly we saw tear gas.

My colleague Arwa Damon suggesting that there was perhaps some altercation that may have provoked that, but there have been altercations all day and none of them merited that volley of tear gas, it seems.

That amount of tear gas fired directly into a large crowd gathered there, most of them peaceful and joyous in some ways, expressing their own freedom of speech in some way.

That caused panic, and then since then, we've just seen this back and forth, ebbing at this point of protesters dispersed by tear gas, who then rallied back towards the police, to be dispersed again by tear gas.

At this point as we edge towards that 11:00 local time here, we're seeing many less protesters in the square, this relentless cloud of tear grass. And as I talk to you, my sentences are punctuated by the sound of more tear gas being fired by riot police. It's unclear who their targets are. I'm pretty sure they can't see the people in the side streets because it's so dark in many ways.

This is a highly dangerous environment. Just simply the physical location we're in, it's a building site. There are underpasses with 30-foot drops in the dark where people fleeing could easily fall. There's rubble. There are metal poles sticking out of the ground. There's barricades and (inaudible) all over the place.

This is not a good place to be chasing protesters around at all, and the level of tear gas makes it very hard for people to see often where they're going. So there will be questions as to how many people have been injured tonight.

I've seen that when this amount of tear gas is used, Ankara certainly, asthmatics and people suffering from epilepsy were certainly affected, too.

Ambulances are on hand. We don't know anything about the impact this has had on protesters, too, but here we are. As I say, I've been watching this now for nearly 15 hours, and there doesn't seem to be a specific police plan to retain authoritative control over this vital part of the city.

And instead, Turkey's economy which has been at breakaway pace for the last decade under Prime Minister Erdogan, is seeing the stock market rocked, and images like this, frankly if you're a tourist, you don't want to come to a country like this where this happens in the very, very heart of the city.


AMANPOUR: Nick, indeed.

You know, it's so interesting to hear the way the government is describing all of this, the legitimate protesters versus what they call the radicals, the terrorists. You and I have been talking about that, what does that mean.

We heard one of the young protesters talking to Arwa who said, yeah, there do look like to have been some who have vandalized shops and the other, and we've asked for people to be restrained.

Can you give us a little bit more clarity. Do you know anything more about is there, you know, a group who are more sort of troublemakers and jumping on this, or is that just a government excuse?

WALSH: I think it's fair to say we've seen evidence of people prepared to fight the police. Some of those groups were bearing the flags of pro-Kurdish or ultra-Marxist/Leninists parties. I don't know if they're from those parties or just bearing their flags as some sort of alibi.

They were able to confront police. They were prepared. Is that a consequence of 12 days of back and forth exchanges, their feeling the need to defend themselves, or are they people who would normally look for a fight? We just don't know.

But I think it's fair to surmise here that a lot of the police response is directed towards the mass, not towards those few. And I've seen crowd control and riots handled by many different police forces.

The more professional ones, they isolate the troublemakers and whisk them away so they don't have to disperse the mass, the panic and risk of injury that that causes. We're simply not seeing that here.

And what is remarkable, and many people have remarked that to me as they observe the protests today, it's come clear how the police want to retain control. They move in, they cause a huge amount of chaos and then they sit there or fall back. And we just don't know quite what they wanted to achieve by all these clashes.


AMANPOUR: Nick, thanks.

And, of course, again, worth repeating that the mayor of Istanbul has gone on television to tell people to leave for their own safety and saying that the police will do what it takes.

He said unremitting measures to clear the square, and it will take however long it takes, he said.

I want to go now to Utku Cakirozer in Ankara. He is the bureau chief there for the newspaper, "Cumhuriyet."

Mr. Cakirozer, can you tell me what is going on in Ankara and whether there is this kind of protest and trouble there tonight?

UTKU CAKIROZER, ANKARA BUREAU CHIEF FOR "CUMHURIYET" (via telephone): Well, actually, the night started a bit quiet, but now I do hear a lot of voices coming out.

Probably people see what's happening there in Taksim would also be pouring into the streets and into the avenues of Ankara as it has happened in the previous nights in the last 13, 14 days.

It always continued each and every night after 9:00 p.m. I'm in (inaudible) in Kugulu. It's a park similar to Gezi Park in Istanbul. In Kugulu Park, people get -- it gets assembled.

In Kizalay (ph) Square, they get assembled and then -- but while people are coming together in those squares, big squares of the city, also in the other districts, in the suburbs of the capital city, the other people are using their -- the packs and they're sort of protesting the government's authoritarian attitudes towards the protesters by all means/

I mean, like the car drivers are using the -- their -- the noise of their cars. And people, ordinary people are on the streets protesting, shouting. And they're -- everybody is in a mood of protest, Christiane. AMANPOUR: So you're there in the capital, Ankara. How do you think this is going to end? Is there going to be any kind of meaningful dialogue by the prime minister as he's called for and certain elements of these protesters? Do you think knowing the situation that this could calm it down or not?

CAKIROZER (via telephone): Well, Christiane, actually today, the day started with a glimmer of hope because yesterday the prime minister stated that the prime minister was going to meet with the representatives of the protest movement tomorrow, on Wednesday.

However, just very early in the morning as you have seen, now he still continues, the protesters in Taksim Square has started, it has become worse and worse during the day and I think the chances of any representative meeting with the prime minister tomorrow is near to nil. Very slim.

Although early in the morning, really we were hoping that in this meeting with the prime minister, there can be some sort of consensus, some sort of dialogue at least some of the requests of the protesters might be accepted we were hoping.

But now looking at what's going on there in Taksim Square, it would indicate at the very moment, I mean, it is very difficult.

And it seems, as you also mentioned through your broadcasting, I mean, both the Istanbul governor and the prime minister, I mean, they don't have in their latest statements today, they haven't shown any kind of sign of dialogue with the protest movement. That's very unfortunate.

AMANPOUR: Yes, I was going to ask you, what did you think when you saw the mayor of Istanbul on television a short while ago saying that this was going to continue, the police action, until the square is cleared?

CAKIROZER (via telephone): Yes. I mean, not only the mayor, but also the governor. Both of them used the similar -- similar attitude, but they're not alone.

I mean, it starts with the prime minister, of course. There are some actually moderate voices even in the government, like the prime minister, but also in state structure up to the president.

But unfortunately, the prime minister didn't share their approach and the way of dialogue with the protestors even though people are ready for a consensus and to solve this issue with finding a common way.

But it seems, I mean, the problem seems to be that the prime minister doesn't want to negotiate, even for the -- for any of those projects that he wants to build up to the Taksim Square.

That seems to be the sole problem that the prime minister doesn't want sort of a dialogue or a consensus with these protesters.

AMANPOUR: All right. All right, Utku Cakirozer, we are going to put that question right now to the prime minister's chief adviser. Ibrahim Kalin joins us on the phone right now.

Mr. Kalin, thank you very much for joining me. Do you think the prime minister will have these talks that he has called for and has agreed to, and will there be any meaningful result from them?

IBRAHIM KALIN, CHIEF ADVISER TO TURKISH PRIME MINISTER: Yes, the prime minister is planning to have the meeting tomorrow with representative of the peaceful protesters.

And, in fact, it's an important step on the part of the government after days of protests, attacks, you know, on public buildings, priority property, police, et cetera, and the tomorrow meeting, in fact, is an indication and confirmation of the fact that the government has made a clear distinction between peaceful protesters and troublemakers from the very beginning.

AMANPOUR: Right. I know that you've been saying that, but let me ask you this. The government also said that no police would go into Gezi Park and they did and they fired tear gas. And how are the people meant to trust the words from the government?

KALIN (via telephone): A little clarification there. Actually, the police did not go in, as far as I know, did not go into the Gezi Park. In fact, I'm looking at the pictures that you're showing. That's mostly from the Gezi Park area, are allowed and free to go around the Gezi Park.

They cleaned up the Taksim Square. There are two places there. They are close to each other. The morning interception was meant to clear up the square, not the Gezi Park. That was announced and that, as far as I know, that has been the case since this morning.

AMANPOUR: All right, can you be clear then? Are the protesters allowed to stay in Gezi Park? Because our reporter there, Arwa Damon, basically was there when tear gas was being fired into the park.

KALIN (via telephone): No, the protesters are there. In fact, the governor and the mayor have also announced it. The protesters are in Gezi Park at the moment.

AMANPOUR: And they're allowed to stay?

KALIN (via telephone): They're allowed to stay. The police have been in to clean up the squares. Maybe your viewers may not know these groups. These are mostly very marginal, some of them very illegal groups that have tried to dominate the scene and occupy the situation and, if you had a chance to look at some of their placards and their banners, et cetera, you clearly see the type of message they are giving.

AMANPOUR: We've heard many like NRS, certainly members of the prime minister's party make this distinction in calling many protesters radicals and who are these people you call terrorists?

Why do you not accept they're part of a broader and expanding protest movement?

KALIN (via telephone): Well, it's very clear. This is not any different from the methods used in, say, the U.K. to disperse the crowds. Today the G8, they stormed the building, and the same thing in the Occupy Wall Street events. The same thing happened in Greece and Spain and most recently in Sweden.

The police have the mandate to establish public order and peaceful process have been allowed to have random demonstrations in the park, but others this morning attacked the police with Molotov cocktails and sticks and whatever they can get and they are not peaceful protesters.

That's why the prime minister has reached out to have a dialogue about their concerns about many issues. You have to make distinctions to have a meaningful dialogue.

At least some of this marginal groups that have been attacking the police, public buildings, et cetera, anywhere in the world they will not be considered peaceful protesters.

AMANPOUR: So Mr. Kalin, what is the prime minister ready to give in his talks tomorrow, as you say still plan to go ahead with these protests. They've made several demands. What is the prime minister willing to give?

KALIN (via telephone): Of course, the message is very clear, that he's willing to have this dialogue, he's listening to these people.

And, of course, I cannot predict the contents of the discussion tomorrow, but his message, as he's been saying over the last two days, that he's willing to have this dialogue with the peaceful protesters, as long as their demands are democratic.

You know, calling a government to resign is not sufficient by itself. This is an elected government. People have been talking about the government having an authoritarian streak, the prime minister becoming almost a dictator. That accusation is completely false.

Turkey, the most recent election was held in 2011. The prime minister was elected with 60 percent of the vote.

But the picture people are trying to and some of the media, I have to say, are trying to depict is as if you have a dictatorship in Turkey, all life has come to a halt.

In fact, what you are showing on your screen is only a very, very small part of Istanbul.

AMANPOUR: Well, we are getting as wide a view as possible and that's why we're very grateful to be talking to you.

Let me ask you, will the government, will the prime minister agree not to, you know, raze Gezi Park, agree not to do this mall?

Also I have to ask you about the alcohol issue. That does worry a lot of Turkey's young, secular people, who are used to being able to have a beer in the square. People are worried about a creeping theocracy. I'm going to say it like that.

KALIN (via telephone): Well, again, I think this is really an expression of a great confusion about some of the measures that government has taken in recent years about, say, alcohol regulation.

The alcohol regulation that was passed and that was approved yesterday by the president, in fact, brings exactly the same international standards that you have anywhere in the world that you go to the U.K. or Germany or the United States.

It's not any different. It's the same global standards that the World Health Organization has instituted for the purchase and use of alcohol. It's not any different.

When you have the same regulation in the U.K., it's considered to be protecting the public from the consumption of alcohol. When you have the same thing in Turkey, it's suddenly theocracy? I'm having a hard time to understand this argument.

In regards to some of the protesters, I have to mention this, some of the people disrupting the public order, you have look at some of their flags, et cetera. Among them are the famous leftist organization which carried out the attack on the American embassy back in February which killed a couple of people there.

When you say these are all peaceful protesters ....

AMANPOUR: So the question, Mr. Kalin -- go ahead. Go ahead.

KALIN (via telephone): This is a meaningless statement people have been using. You have similar regulations.

In the U.K., for example, when Prime Minister Cameron says that there will be zero tolerance to all the disrupters, all the looters and plunderers, et cetera, this is considered a measure of protecting public order.

When police and other officials act in the same way in Istanbul, this is called authoritarianism? I'm trying to understand what's going on here. Is this a double standard or lack of understanding? Or maybe ...

AMANPOUR: Well, Mr. Kalin ...

KALIN (via telephone): ... I don't know.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Kalin, I'm not going to belabor this point, but you know that people are fed up with seeing journalists jailed, with seeing political space restricted.

But I want to ask you one final question and that are you going to -- how is the Istanbul police going to clear Taksim Square while allowing the protesters to stay in Gezi Park, in other words, separate what you call trouble-makers from legitimate protesters?

How are you going to do it because the mayor says it's going to continue until it's cleaned?

KALIN (via telephone): Well, Christiane, it's not going to be any different from what happened in the Occupy Wall Street events in some of the parks in New York or in London and other places, that is, there are designated areas for peaceful protesters to have their protests and those places have been designated.

In Istanbul, it's the Gezi Park area. In Ankara, it's Oran (ph) Park which is very close to the office of the prime minister.

And for any other march, illegal demonstration, et cetera, obviously, the police have to take a measure.

I'll give you one example. You know, you said, where is the concrete evidence. Last week on the second day of the protests on June 1st, Saturday, the prime minister ordered the police to leave the Taksim area and the Gezi Park.

And the police left this whole area at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday and we thought that this would calm things down. The same thing happened in Ankara. Oran (ph) Park area was designated for the protesters to have their peaceful protest.