Hundreds arrested following Turkey May Day protests


Police in Istanbul used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protestors as trade unions and leftists march to Taksim Square

Riot police use water cannons to disperse a May Day rally near Taksim Square in Istanbul (Twitter/@AjansaKurdi)
Last update: 
Friday 1 May 2015 19:10 UTC

Police in Istanbul used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protestors as trade unions and left-wing groups attempted to march to the city's iconic Taksim Square for the annual May Day celebrations on Friday.

Roads have been closed and thousands of riot police deployed on the streets around Istanbul as tens of thousands of activists defied a ban on gathering in Taksim Square, imposed by local authorities allegedly out of fear of violence.

Istanbul governor Vali Sahin said that 203 people had been arrested, and six police and 18 protesters had been wounded in a day of clashes around Istanbul.

Some activists on social media claimed live rounds were being used by police:

Labour Day has seen recurring clashes in recent years between security forces and leftist protesters.

This year's demonstrations come two months after parliament passed a controversial security bill giving the police greater powers to crack down on protests.

Amnesty International condemned the bill, stating at the time that the legal changes “threaten human rights, including the prospect of increased arbitrary detention, excessive use of firearms by police," measures which protesters fear will be used against them during Friday's protests.

However, protesters have remained defiant, citing the high prevelance of safety hazards in the workplace and increasing financial inequality.

“I think the working classes should be out on the street struggling for their rights and demands on 1st of May,” said Ozan Tekin, a Central Committee member of the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party, who took part in the march.

“Turkey is the leading country in Europe, and 3rd in world overall, in terms of occupational accidents/deaths - which we call murders. Alongside this, there're the problems of sub-contracted workers, unsecured/flexible working conditions and low wages. And in May last year, 301 miners were dead in Soma. There were no real trials and the government sides with the bosses & protects them."

"It is the neoliberal policies of AKP that paves the way for such massacres," he added.

He said that the attempts to ban the march had provoked a higher level of response from protesters than had it been allowed.

"The government is so arrogant that they want the workers to protest in the places that the government choose. And those are usually areas that are outside of the city center. Leave aside the human rights and all the stuff: It's a constitutional right in Turkey to protest wherever you want without the need to inform the state forces in the run-up," he told Middle East Eye.

"The government claims: There will be 'provocations' and 'violence' if they let it happen in Taksim. Wrong. In 2010, 2011 and 2012 the police wasn't controlling the area (they were only controlling the outer parts) and no provocations or any kind of violence happened. Noone was hurt. But when they ban the demo in the square, there're hundreds of people injured or arrested every year."

Authorities in Istanbul tightened security ahead of the national holiday, with iron barricades already erected in the city centre.

The governor of Istanbul, Vasip Sahin, said that demonstrations would not be allowed on Taksim Square as the area was "not adapted to the commemorations for May 1" and there was a risk to "security and property".

Many members from the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey (DISK), the Confederation of Public Sector Trade Unions (KESK), the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB) and the Turkish Medical Association (TBB) gathered in Besiktas district on Friday morning before attempting to march on Taksim.

Some members massed in the nearby Sisli district, where DISK’s headquarter is located for a similar attempt to march to Taksim.

Arzu Cekeroglu, DISK’s secretary-general, said on Wednesday that labour unions were determined to march to the square for May Day celebrations. "We won’t give up this square," she said.

Earlier, a few dozen Communist protesters who tried to protest in the centre of Taksim Square were immediately surrounded by police.

Reports also came in of clashes with far-right activists:

Taksim Square: a battle ground

Taksim Square has been a flashpoint for clashes on Labour Day for decades. Dozens were killed there on 1 May 1977, when modern Turkey was going through one of its most turbulent periods.

Some labour unions have moved their celebrations out of Istanbul to avoid violence confrontations. The TURK-IS union, for example, said it is going to celebrate May Day in Zonguldak, Turkey’s northern province, instead of Istanbul’s Kadikoy district where their celebrations took place in 2014.

At least 10,000 police have been mobilised to ensure order in Istanbul while a key metro line will be partly suspended to prevent access to the square.

"There will be no compromise to anyone who wishes to exploit the memory of our citizens who died on May 1 (1977) to drive the country to chaos or who wants to create violence with Molotov cocktails," said Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, quoted by Turkish media.

He warned unions and activists "not to get into the games of marginal groups and teams of provocateurs".

Some 90 people were wounded and 142 arrested in 1 May clashes in Istanbul last year, with reports showing police's use of tear gas and water cannon to break up demonstrations. 

Many observers expect an escalation of violence to occur during Friday's nationwide protests. 

File @fuatavni_f

The new homeland security bill includes jail sentences for protesters who carry Molotov cocktails, wear the insignia of a banned organisation or conceal their face with a mask.

Heavy police deployment will also be in place in the capital Ankara, with restrictions on public access to the city centre.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's administration is showing its nervousness about public demonstrations following weeks of deadly anti-government Gezi Park protests in May-June 2013 centred on Taksim Square.

The protests represented the biggest challenge yet to Erdogan's rule.

With Turkey facing a tense political situation and general elections scheduled for June, the government is keen to avoid the possibility of mass demonstrations among the country's opposition groups.