Rights groups condemn Turkey protest crackdown

PARIS (AFP) - Rights groups on Tuesday condemned what they called abuse and brutality by Turkish riot police in their crackdown on protesters demonstrating against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-rooted government.

After 12 days of unrelenting demonstrations, Istanbul's Taksim Square turned into a battle scene as riot police fired volleys of teargas to disperse thousands of protesters who hurled stones, fireworks and Molotov cocktails.

Mr Andrew Gardner, Turkey researcher at Amnesty International, condemned an early morning raid on peaceful protesters by police which sparked the fresh clashes at Taksim Square, the epicentre of the protests.

"Instead of continuing to repress peaceful activists, the Turkish authorities should start to look at the actions of their own police and bring to justice those responsible for the shocking abuse we have seen over the past two weeks," he said in a statement.

"The protests in Taksim Square and Gezi Park have been entirely peaceful and have a right to continue," added Mr Gardner, who is in Istanbul.

The statement from the rights watchdog said protests would likely escalate unless authorities engage in meaningful discussions with the activists.

The nationwide unrest first erupted after police cracked down heavily on May 31 on a campaign to save Gezi Park, near the square, from redevelopment.

The trouble spiralled into mass displays of anger against Erdogan, who is seen as increasingly authoritarian, tarnishing Turkey's image as a model of Islamic democracy.

Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu, who said Tuesday's intervention was to remove banners on the square, told Amnesty police were using "appropriate force in pursuit of legitimate goals." "Neither of these claims is consistent with the reality on the ground," said Mr Gardner.

Mr Erdogan said on Tuesday that four people, including a policeman, had died in the unrest. Nearly 5,000 people have been injured.

Citing the Istanbul Medical Association, Amnesty said nine people were on Tuesday injured by plastic bullets, several suffered broken limbs and there were a number of cases of head and chest trauma and one fractured skull.

Meanwhile Human Rights Watch said in a statement Tuesday's assault on "tens of thousands of peaceful protesters has all but destroyed efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between the government and protesters."

"Teargassing tens of thousands of protesters in Taksim Square won't end this crisis," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"If Turkey is to be counted among rights-respecting countries, the police brutality has to stop and the government should talk to the protesters."

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