Turkey’s protesters try the silent treatment

Turkey’s demonstrations took a new twist on Tuesday, as plazas, malls and public spaces across the country filled with people trying a new form of protest: doing nothing.

Protesters opposed to the 10-year rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday that he may have driven them from central Istanbul’s Gezi Park, which they had occupied for more than two weeks, but that he could not arrest them for standing still. More than a thousand people trickled into Taksim Square throughout the day, staring silently at a massive portrait of the country’s founding father that security forces hung last week on a building.

The new style of protest — inspired by a single performance artist who on late Monday appeared to be the first to do it in Taksim Square — came on a day of continued crackdown by Erdogan’s government. More than 80 people were detained, many of them from left-wing political parties, and Erdogan said he wanted to expand police powers. His government also said it was planning to enact a “cyberterrorism” law to regulate the use of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, that have become a vital means for protesters to communicate.

“We will strengthen our police force in every way possible so that we can increase their power against all these events,” Erdogan told a Justice and Development Party parliamentary meeting in Ankara.

The United Nations human rights agency, meanwhile, raised concerns Tuesday that tear gas and pepper spray had been fired directly at protesters and inside closed spaces.

Without directly addressing the U.N. questions, Erdogan said Tuesday that “shooting tear gas at people is the most natural right of police, and they can do it.”

Protesters had occupied Taksim Square and adjoining Gezi Park for more than two weeks when police swooped in Saturday, using tear gas and water cannons to push people out. What began as a protest over the park’s demolition quickly spread to more general objections about what many opposed to Erdogan describe as his creeping authoritarianism and restrictions on personal liberties. The Saturday crackdown seems only to have hardened the two sides’ positions, and with Istanbul’s protests no longer concentrated in Gezi Park, small pockets of resistance have spread throughout the city.

In Istanbul, 62 members of left-wing groups were detained at their homes and offices in early-morning raids on Tuesday, a representative from the Istanbul Bar Association said. The charges against them were not made public. An additional 28 people were detained in Ankara, the representative said. Previously, doctors, lawyers and journalists have all been targeted by security forces.

Tuesday’s new wave of protests started after Erdem Gunduz, an artist originally from the coastal city of Izmir, stood late Monday for hours in Taksim Square staring at a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. Police did little to intervene until others began to join him. Eventually, police detained several people but released them a short time later.

“The people are not being allowed into Taksim,” Gunduz told the Dogan news agency, when asked what he was doing, explaining that he was there in silent protest against the government’s tactics.

With Interior Minister Muammer Guler saying that the police would not target protests that did not disrupt public order, thousands of people across Turkey, everywhere from luxury shopping malls to local plazas, started standing still on Tuesday.

“If they attack when we are united and throwing slogans, then we’re going to try to do nothing,” said Mert Uzun Mehmet, 17, a high school student who was standing in Taksim Square along with about 1,000 others in 85-degree heat. “But as you can see from yesterday, they’ll arrest people for doing nothing.”

Guler also said Tuesday that Turkey’s government is working on new regulations to combat “cyberterrorism,” which he described as “terrorist organizations” using Facebook and Twitter to incite people to riot and commit other crimes. It was not clear how the new regulations would be enforced, but police have already detained people in several cities across the country based on statements they were alleged to have made on Twitter.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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