Protests in Turkey: a lawyer’s experience

yegane guley
Yegane Guley

Imagine this… prime minister David Cameron decides to destroy St James’s Park to rebuild a long-ago demolished British Army barracks that “may house” luxury flats, a mall, a few shops and perhaps a museum. What would you do, bearing in mind that there is neither Green Park nor Hyde Park nearby? Stand by so that Cameron can accomplish his “childhood dream” or stand up to him?

Geared up with a swimming goggles, dust mask bought from a DIY shop and my helmet that I used while climbing Mt Ararat, I have been standing up to Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his army or riot police for the last 21 days, with hundreds of thousands of people, half of which are probably women.

Who am I? A 41 year old woman, a lawyer admitted in New York, England and Wales, the British Virgin Islands and Turkey, and according to Erdogan “çapulcu” (chapulju) a looter, bum, marauder.

Background to the protests

taksim square istanbul
Taksim Square

Gezi Park in Taksim Square is literally the only green space left in Istanbul’s heart. Some 1.5 million people pass through Taksim each day. The plans to redevelop Taksim area that included Gezi Park were prepared without any public consultation what so ever – in contrast to the Istanbul Municipality asking the residents of Istanbul what colour the city buses should be.

As soon as the Taksim development plans became public, town planners, architects, historians, landscape architects, artists and concerned citizens came together and lodged an application to the 2nd Cultural Heritage Conservation District Board of Istanbul for its reversal. On 11 December 2012, the board reached a decision to reject the development plans on the grounds that there was not even any information as to when the artillery barracks was built let alone the architectural plans and interior details of it. Accordingly, without such architectural plans and information, the barracks could not be rebuilt.

The board also found that after the demolishment of the artillery barracks, the area was used as a park and hence formed a part of the common cultural and historical heritage of the people for the last 70 years that was worth preserving.

Erdogan did not like this decision of the board and an appeal to reverse the decision was made to the High Council of Cultural Heritage Protection. On 27 February 2013 the council annulled the decision of the board and opened the way for the development of Taksim Square. On 13 March Erdogan said in a speech: “We rejected their rejections”, confirming that he had directly interfered with the decision of the council.

In the meantime the people who wanted Gezi Park to remain a park formed a charity – Taksim Gezi Park Association – with a purpose to protect the park. On 27 April 2013, the association applied for judicial review of the council’s decision to the Administrative Court of Istanbul on the ground that the council had not given any reasons as to why and how it reached its decision. Accordingly the decision did not comply with the legal procedures in force and was not legal, and that to reconstruct the artillery barracks as a lookalike building that will most likely be a mall or residence on the Gezi Park was obviously contrary to the public interest.

As this legal battle continued, in the wee hours of 29 May bulldozers went into the Gezi Park and started uprooting the trees to open a way to new roadworks. During the day, people gathered there to stop the unlawful construction work. At the same time the association was trying to get a preliminary injunction to stop the works. They could not get legal authorities to act upon their request.

To continue with the illegal roadworks police force was deployed and they used excessive amount of tear gas to disperse the people that were just hanging out, reading books and playing guitar to the police at the barricade in the park. The association called MP Sirri Sürreya Önder for assistance, and when he came he stood in front of the bulldozer that then stopped due to the non-touchable status of MPs in Turkey.

Social storm

Having seen tear gas and police violence on peaceful demonstrators on TV and social media, during the night of 29-30 May some 15 to 20 tents were put up in Gezi Park to continue with the vigil in case bulldozers appeared in the wee hours of the morning again.

Sure enough, on 30 May at 5am, police went into the tented area with tear gas and pushed out the environmentalists, after which police burnt their tents. This was captured on camera and found itself in thousands of peoples’ Facebook and Twitter timelines. After work, thousands went to the Gezi Park and stayed overnight to stand up to police violence along with the environmentalists. I was one of them.

We stayed up all night. I was with three MPs of CHP, the main opposition party. Around 5am police started to interfere again with heavy use of teargas and people were once more pushed out of the park. This time people were throwing stones and bottles to the police as they charged into the park. Very quickly the park was emptied.

Municipality workers started to collect the tents, all were collected and put in a truck and taken away. At least they weren’t burnt this time!

With the CHP MPs Ilhan Cihaner, Melda Onur and Muslim Sari, we went after the people to see if there were any injuries. As we were going down the park police fired tear gas again and we were in the mist of the tear gas which was painful.

To run out of the smoke I had to slide down an earth wall that was made just the day before by bulldozers. I am unsure how I managed to get down there without breaking a limb. Indeed, I am still surprised that no one died that morning considering where the people were pushed – right towards the construction area with iron bars and rocks sticking out. An old wall fell apart on to the escaping demonstrators, breaking legs and arms, but still that was an easy escape from the police attack.

We were pushed out of the park, and police cordoned off the park with iron barricades. The news spiraled and people started to come to Taksim in support. As soon as 15 or 20 people gathered together at Taksim police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse us. This continued all day long.

As the day wore on we got angrier and less scared despite the numerous times I found myself in the middle of a tear gas attack and water cannon spray.

Around 3pm on 31 May, via Twitter, I found out that the Administrative Court had ordered a preliminary injunction to halt the building project.

After the Administrative Court’s decision I thought that the police would be ordered to retreat and take down the metal barricades that were put up earlier in the morning and everything would go back to normal, and after a couple of hours’ celebrations we would all go home very tired but also very happy. By that time, I had been up 36 hours straight which reminded me of my times standing at the printers while working at Shearman & Sterling!

Protests continue

Sadly, Erdogan’s “rule of law à la Turca” kicked in once more and he chose to ignore the Administrative Court’s decision. The police violence on peaceful citizens continued that night and the next day which in turn made thousands of people take to the street and march to Taksim for support.

The next day, when hundreds of thousands started to arrive at Taksim from every corner of Istanbul and when the main opposition party, CHP, cancelled its scheduled rally to come to the support of the Taksim resistance, Erdogan gave in. The police were ordered to withdraw, and leave Taksim and the Gezi Park to who it belongs to: the people.

At that point on 1 June, all that Erdogan had to say was that he would respect the 31 May decision and that until the court case is finalised no works would be carried out on the park. Instead of this, Erdogan kept repeating in his speeches that the artillery barracks would be built so that it could house a shopping mall, luxury flats, a five star hotel and so on.

The more he talked, disrespecting law and the people who took part in the resistance, the angrier and the stronger the resistance got, and a total occupation of Taksim and Gezi Park started. A communal life was established quickly and each night there were spontaneous festivals of all sorts that were followed by a clean-up process each morning.

Days went by, Erdogan continued to provoke occupiers of the Gezi Park, and kept repeating his dreams of rebuilding the artillery barracks albeit with a small step back: the building “would house a few shops and a city museum and what was wrong with that?” he said.

To support the Gezi Park resistance, the protests spread across Turkey to most big cities. It became bigger than Gezi Park and turned into a resistance for democracy, freedom of speech and human rights. People had enough of Erdogan’s autocratic governing style.

On 12 June police stormed into Taksim Square to clear the banners and graffiti. Hundreds of police were in the square using tear gas again and a handful of “protestors” resisted. After a good couple of hours the police took control of Taksim, leaving Gezi Park occupied, but Gezi Park occupiers were affected by tear gas bombs again and again.

Lawyers arrested

On the same day a group of lawyers went to the main courthouse in Istanbul to protest the police violence on peaceful protestors. The public prosecutor in charge of the Istanbul Courthouse ordered the police to take those lawyers in custody. When a lawyer resisted he said to the police “I am a lawyer. You are breaking the law. You can not arrest me like this.”

The policeman apparently replied: “Are you teaching me what the law is?” The lawyers’ robes were ripped off and those who resisted police were pulled to the ground and forcibly arrested and taken to police headquarters.

In all, 49 lawyers were arrested that day by force despite the fact that they were not breaking any law. They were released after seven or eight hours without any charge.

The next day on 13 June, approximately 3,000 lawyers held a protest in front of the Istanbul Courthouse for the illegal arrests of our colleagues.

After 17 days, four deaths, hundreds injured and arrested, and meeting two different groups of people Erdogan finally said that he would respect the decision of the Administrative Court, and no work would be carried out until the court reached its final decision.

The future of Turkish democracy

The blind eye to Gezi Park legal proceedings is only one example of Erdogan’s “rule of law”. Constitutional amendments on 12 September 2010 provided him with the tools to redesign the judiciary and the legal system and having achieved this, he is now simply uncontrollable. If a court’s decision is not what Erdogan or his clan wants then the judges sitting to hear that particular case are replaced by those who will have the decisions the prime minister wants.

Failing that, AKP having a majority in the parliament will pass a law overnight to overrule the decision reached by the judiciary. Unfortunately, this has become a common practice of the government.

Erdogan must be stopped. His autocratic governing practices ignore one of the fundamentals of democracy: rule of law.

We do not want the West to interfere and topple Erdogan but stop supporting him. I am afraid if we do not stand against Erdogan “rule of law”, he will soon reach his final destination and get off the democracy train.

Yegâne Güley is a partner at Öztürk & Partners in Istanbul