Erdem Gunduz stands in a silent protest at Taksim Square in Istanbul.

© 2013 Reuters

After the Turkish government’s forcible evacuation of Taksim Gezi Park on June 15, bringing to an end the 19-day occupation, police cordoned off the park. Regular police officers now guard its entrance from the square, seated on white plastic garden chairs in a long line at the top of the main steps. The park is sealed off with tape as though it were a crime scene.

For the government, Gezi Park is a crime scene.  The week has been dominated with the news of arrests of protesters and government discussion on possible new restrictions on the use of social media and criminal investigation of tweets, although it remains unclear exactly what the government is planning. 

Most of the hundreds detained, including those detained for their tweets, have been released. But in Istanbul, 18 members of a legal leftist association (ESP) have been placed in pretrial detention on charges of membership of an illegal organization under the Anti-Terror Law for their participation in the Gezi Park protests and a series of other demonstrations on different dates. On the night of June 21, another 17 people were awaiting a court decision on whether they too would be remanded to detention on the same charge. An Istanbul court sent two other protesters, supporters of Çarşı, the Beşiktaş football team fan group, to pretrial detention on suspicion of possessing explosives. They are also under investigation for being members of an organized criminal gang. 

The majority of the Gezi Park protesters did not engage in violence, let alone anything that could be described as acts of terrorism or organized criminal activity. Nor did they use guns and explosives during their protest. But imprisoning people linked to the protests under the Anti-Terror Law and for weapons possession looks like an effort to discredit the legitimate aims of the protesters. Government officials have repeatedly sought in their public speeches to portray the protests as part of a wider effort to unseat the government and destabilize the country.

In cities such as Ankara, Izmir, and Eskisehir, police have continued to disperse demonstrations held to support the Gezi Park protesters, while in Istanbul a new mode of demonstration emerged on June 17, when an actor staged an individual silent standing protest of his own. Others began to imitate him, by simply stopping and standing still for hours in the street and in Taksim Square.

In parks around Istanbul for the past four evenings people have congregated to discuss their demands and how to continue nonviolent protest to perpetuate the spirit of Gezi Park. While thousands of people have participated in these forums without disruption, there was one isolated incident on June 20 when a small group physically attacked participants in forum in a park in Istanbul’s Yeniköy district. The attackers accused the participants in the forum of trying to prevent construction of a mosque in Yeniköy.   

The “standing man/woman” protest and the extent to which local park forums can become a sustained social movement are unclear, but what is clear is that the events that began in Gezi Park have had a profound effect on the political scene in Turkey. In its attempt to discredit the protests, the ruling Justice and Development Party has strongly promoted the line that they were organized and supported by an alliance of internal and international forces, including the international media, business interests, illegal armed organizations and criminal networks. The mainstream media in Turkey have for the most part reported the events selectively and timidly, with many news outlets echoing the government position. 

The Turkish government has responded furiously to European Union criticism of police violence and restrictions on freedom of expression and nonviolent protest, and the diplomatic fallout has further chilled EU-Turkey relations. The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, has also spoken out, urging the Turkish government on June 18 to adopt a human rights framework toward “resolving some remaining systemic problems in the country’s approach to rule of law,” and emphasizing that “a broad spectrum of civil society needs to be fully involved in the search for a long-term resolution.”

Turkey’s commitment to freedom of expression and assembly will face another test over the next two weeks. The LGBT community in Istanbul will hold the Trans Pride March on June 23 and the LGBT Pride March on June 30. Pride marches have taken place peacefully in Turkey in the past and are an important expression of Turkey’s vibrant LGBT community. The Turkish authorities should ensure that all those who participate in the pride celebrations, like those engaged in peaceful standing protests and park forums, are able to fully exercise and enjoy their right to assembly and freedom of expression.