Turkey’s protest leaders could face life in jail

Turkey is intensifying its oppressive stance on protests following a series of demonstrations that spread like wildfire across the country in June. A ruling party official says that ringleaders could face life in jail and a minister is outlining plans to outlaw political chants at sports events.

The government insists the protests are not related to other moves – such as a tax inquiry into Turkey’s biggest company, which Ankara previously suggested sided with the protesters.

There has been a great deal of criticism of Prime Minister Erdogan who is being accused of becoming increasingly authoritarian. A number of journalists were sacked for covering the protests.

“During the protests we thought things could go either of two ways: the government could have learnt from its mistakes . . . or we could see further repression of dissenting voices,” said Andrew Gardner, a researcher at Amnesty International. “Unfortunately, we have seen the latter.”

In comments this week, Mehmet Ali Şahin, deputy chairman of the ruling AK party, said the protests should be evaluated under a section of the Turkish penal code “which requires the life sentence”.

Pointing out events in which protesters sought to march on the prime minister’s residence and Istanbul office – actions the government says were led by banned militant groups – he added: “The protesters were aiming to overthrow the government.”

Demonstrations continue, albeit in a lower key since the Gezi Park clashes in June, with police using gas sprays and water cannon to disperse hundreds of people in Istanbul on Wednesday night, breaking up one event that the parents of a 14-year-old boy left in a coma by a police tear gas canister were due to address.

Muammer Güler, interior minister, said the government had information of an imminent push to hold protests at locations such as schools, universities and sports events.

He added that measures would be in place to ban political chants at sports events, which he said were not permitted by international norms.

In June, Mr Erdogan complained about a 2011 event in which he was booed at the reopening of a football stadium rebuilt with public money.

During the protests’ height, the prime minister also suggested Istanbul’s Divan hotel might have committed a crime by giving shelter to protesters, who set up a clinic on its premises.

The hotel is owned by Koc Holding, the conglomerate whose refinery company, Tupras, was raided by tax and inspectors last week, along with other subsidiaries as part of an investigation into possible tax irregularities.

Mehmet Şimşek, Turkey’s finance minister, tweeted that there was “absolutely no linkage” between current tax inquiries and the Gezi protests.

In pointed comments of his own, Ali Koc, one of the leading members of the family that controls the group, said that Koc accounted for close to 10 per cent of Turkey’s GDP, exports and tax income and had no goal other than “the improvement of the Turkish economy and welfare”.

The government, has kept a tight grip on the media over the past two months; Ercan Sadik Ipekçi, head of Turkey’s Journalists Union, says 22 journalists have been sacked and 37 forced to resign over their Gezi Park coverage in Istanbul.

This week, the editorship of ‘Milliyet’, one of Turkey’s leading newspapers, changed hands, with one of the paper’s main columnists complaining that he has recently been unable to publish his articles.
“One after another colleague has been dismissed, silenced and fired, including myself,” said Yavuz Baydar, sacked last week as ombudsman for the ‘Sabah’ newspaper, which like other pro-government outlets was criticised for minimal coverage of the protests.

“That means there is very little room left for independent media at the moment . . . and without a free media a democratisation process is impossible.”

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