Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] called on Turkish police Sunday to use non-violent tactics with civilians [statement] protesting the renovation of a rare public green space in Istanbul. Police forces dispersed peaceful protests with tear gas, water canons and plastic bullets, triggering wider public protests across the country. The historic park has symbolic meaning to minority political parties, many of which claim that this was the first step in an unpopular regime plan to build over the park with a shopping mall. Sunday's events came as a result of informal critique by Turkish public officials, including President Abdullah Gul [BBC backgrounder], as the construction halted and restarted several times from May 27 to June 1 [BBC report]. Police forces routinely dispersed protesters in order to further the construction, sending at least one representative to the hospital for a heart attack. An adviser for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan [official website, in Turkish] denied the use of excessive force on Saturday and chastised the protesters. High Representative of the [European] Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton [official website] called for talks between the two sides.
This outbreak of violence comes about one month after Turkey's Grand National Assembly approved amendments [BIA summary] to the country's anti-terrorism laws to bring them more in line with EU freedom of expression standards. In February the Council of Europe [official website] urged Turkey to move more quickly [JURIST report] in its efforts to reform the laws governing freedom of expression and anti-terrorism. The UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) [official website] criticized Turkey in November for prosecuting activists [JURIST report] under the country's vague counterterrorism law. In March 2011 a spokesperson for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) [official website] urged Turkish officials to respect journalists' freedom of expression [JURIST comment].