Turkey's President Erdogan says political opponents behind student protests

Students of Bogazici University hold placards and shout slogans in front of the Istanbul Courthouse, on Feb 3, 2021.
Students of Bogazici University hold placards and shout slogans in front of the Istanbul Courthouse, on Feb 3, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

ISTANBUL (AFP) - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday (Feb 5) accused his political opponents of being behind a month of student protests rattling his 18-year rule.

Erdogan has launched daily verbal attacks on the demonstrations as they have grown in size and resulted in hundreds of arrests this week. Most of those detained have been released but the crackdown has hampered Erdogan's tentative efforts to mend Turkey's relations with Western allies in the face of deep economic problems at home.

The protest movement kicked off when Erdogan decided to appoint a party loyalist as the rector of Istanbul's elite Bogazici University at the start of the year. But it has since expanded to include support from some leftist political forces and unions.

The LGBT debate was thrust into the centre of the political firestorm when Erdogan lashed out at students for hanging an artwork near the rector's office depicting the movement's rainbow flags at Islam's holiest site Mecca.

Erdogan said rallies that saw dozens detained in Istanbul and other big cities on Thursday were not driven by students but illegal Kurdish militants "up in the mountains" and "some scholars".

"The events at Bogazici are not related to our students there," Erdogan said after attending Friday prayers in Istanbul. "Politics are leading the way there," he said. "We will not allow the children there to be 'sold' to the terror organisations."

Erdogan's remark on Wednesday saying "there is no such thing" as the LGBT movement in Turkey drew sharp rebukes from the United States and European Union.

Washington said it "strongly condemns the anti-LGBTQIA rhetoric" and Brussels said the "hate speech displayed by high-level officials... is unacceptable".

But Erdogan stood his ground on Friday. "Don't pay attention to what those lesbians say," he told a group of supporters while promoting traditional family values later in the day.

He added that his Western critics had their own domestic problems to deal with. "Aren't you ashamed about what happened after the elections?" Erdogan asked in comments addressed to the United States.

"We don't have such problems here," Erdogan said.