Turkish riot police fired tear gas on Saturday to disperse thousands of demonstrators in central Istanbul protesting against what they see as authoritarian new laws passed by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
Battling a corruption scandal, Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party has pushed through laws tightening government control over the Internet and courts this month, as well as proposed a bill envisaging broader powers for the country’s National Intelligence Organization.
Officers backed by water cannons cleared demonstrators from the city’s main shopping avenue, Istiklal Street, with some protesters chanting: “Everywhere Taksim, everywhere resistance” in reference to weeks of anti-government protests last summer at Taksim Square.
“Tayyip Erdogan, don’t pull the Internet plug,” one banner held up among the crowds read.
“We are here because we are sick and tired of Tayyip’s angry scolding and AK Party laws trying to limit every freedom we have,” 26-year-old architect Sinem Gul said.
Tear gas spread into shops and restaurants as police chased demonstrators into side streets in the second such protest in recent weeks.
Erdogan’s critics see the new laws as an authoritarian backlash against the corruption inquiry shaking his government, which his supporters say is a plot against him by powerful US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who wields extensive if covert influence over the country’s police and judiciary.
Social media and video-sharing sites have been awash with leaked recordings presented as evidence of government wrongdoing since the corruption scandal erupted in December last year.
The Turkish government says that the laws — including an Internet bill that allows Web pages to be blocked within hours — protect privacy and defend democracy in the face of a bid by Gulen to manipulate state institutions, a charge the cleric denies.
The graft scandal poses one of the greatest threats to Erdogan’s 11-year-old rule and his response, including dismissing or reassigning thousands of police officers and hundreds of prosecutors and judges, has betrayed what critics say are increasingly authoritarian tendencies.
Gulen has denied orchestrating the scandal and his backers say they are the victims of a witch-hunt.