For some Turks who remain scarred by a state crackdown on nationwide demonstrations a decade ago, Sunday’s runoff presidential vote is a chance to finally get justice against those who carried out heavy-handed attacks on protesters.
Hakan Yaman, 47, a minibus driver on his way back from work in May 2013, was hit with a tear gas canister and then brutally attacked by police on Istanbul’s Asian side.
“I could not breathe. The police started to beat me. One of them gouged my eye out with an iron bar. They threw me on to a fire. I pretended to be dead to survive,” he said in an interview this week.
“It has been 10 years now. No one is put on trial yet. I will not give up until the police officers are punished,” he said.
In that year, small demonstrations against plans to build a shopping mall in Gezi Park, in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, swelled into hundreds of thousands of people protesting against the government nationwide – and prompted a harsh crackdown.
Human rights groups say 11 people were killed and more than 8,000 were injured in the state response, while more than 3,000 were arrested.
President Tayyip Erdogan’s government said the crackdown was warranted given threats to the state, and he has called the protesters “looters” who were partly funded from abroad, a claim denied by defendants and civil society groups.
Minibus driver Yaman became one of the symbols of the violence inflicted during the protests. He was among 11 people who suffered eye loss due to police violence during Gezi, according to the Turkish Medical Association.
The attack left his cheekbone, forehead and nose broken, and his skull fractured. He said he has had 12 operations and plans two more.
No prosecution was opened against suspected police officers in Yaman’s case. In October 2013, Amnesty International started a campaign called “What Happened to Hakan Yaman?”, calling on Turkish authorities to end impunity.
The Gezi protest marked the biggest popular challenge in Erdogan’s two-decade reign, and its tenth anniversary comes as Turks head to the polls Sunday for his runoff against opposition challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
Erdogan is seen having the edge in the runoff after he received 49.5% support in the first round on May 14 versus Kilicdaroglu at 44.9%, while his ruling party’s coalition won a majority in parliament.
Some families of jailed Gezi defendants say the runoff is an opportunity to return to rule of law and democracy in Turkey, given opposition pledges to overhaul the judiciary.
Critics of the response to the demonstrations say the government criminalised peaceful civil disobedience against state repression, which officials deny.
In 2013, police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators. Victims and rights groups say brutality against protesters often went unpunished.
In 2020, Erdogan called the 2013 protests “a heinous attack targeting the people and state just like military coups”. In pre-election rallies this year, he called the protesters “looters”.
Alper Tas, a Left Party official, said on Twitter that voters “owe” those who died and were jailed. “We will vote on the 10th anniversary of Gezi resistance.”
Last year, seven people were each sentenced to 18 years for “attempting to overthrow the government” over alleged roles in the Gezi unrest. Philanthropist Osman Kavala, the most recognizable name, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for orchestrating the protests. Defendants deny the allegations.
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Turkey must free Kavala and others for violations of their rights. It has been ignored, and Turkey now faces possible suspension from the Council of Europe.
Gezi Park – a slice of trees and fountains amid the concrete and pavement of Taksim Square – sits between landmarks of Turkey’s two political camps: the Ataturk Cultural Center that was rebuilt as an opera house, and the sprawling Taksim Mosque.
Begum Ozden Firat, professor of sociology at Mimar Sinan University in Istanbul, said the protests uniquely brought different segments of society together.
“It offers a way to go beyond culture wars which have been the bottom line of politics in Turkey,” she said. “We are stuck with identity politics but Gezi, both as a park and as an uprising, offers something completely new.”
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