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Turkey Seeks Arrests Over 2013 Protests

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ISTANBUL – A crackdown on political dissent in Turkey is widening to participants in a major civic unrest five years ago. Prosecutors have issued arrest warrants for a prominent actor, a leading journalist and civil society activists.

The arrests are in connection with the 2013 protests known as Gezi. The unrest began over plans to turn Gezi Park in central Istanbul into a shopping mall. The protests quickly transformed into broader demonstrations opposing the government and, in particular, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At its peak, the unrest saw millions of people take to the streets across the country.

For Erdogan, who is now president, the scale of the unrest posed the most significant challenge to his power, analysts say.

‘There is an element of fear about Gezi. Gezi is a message. It was something which he [Erdogan] really couldn’t control, and he hated it,’ Turkish political scientist Cengiz Aktar said.

Felt targeted

‘He never understood it,’ Aktar added. ‘Even though it was a typical civil disobedience protest, he always considered it very personal as a conspiracy against him.’

The Gezi protests drew support from broad sections of civil society and many media personalities.

This week, an arrest warrant in connection with Gezi was issued for actor Mehmet Ali Alabora. Can Dundar, a prominent dissident journalist, is also wanted in connection with the unrest. Both Alabora and Dundar live in exile.

In response to his arrest warrant, Dundar tweeted ‘#HepmizGezideydik We feel proud.’ The hashtag translates as ‘We are all Gezi.’

The arrest warrants followed the detention of 13 leading members of Turkey’s civil society in connection with Gezi. Following a national and international outcry, all but one were released. Investigations, however, are reportedly continuing into all 13 people.

Aktar, who now teaches at the University of Athens, claims the latest Gezi investigations are a warning.

‘With Turkey in economic crisis, by hitting Gezi again, I think he [Erdogan] is giving a powerful message to potential protesters like Gezi, as he feels sooner or later, people will react to what is happening in the country,’ Aktar said.

Recession ahead

Turkey is widely predicted by economists and analysts to be heading into a recession after this year’s collapse in the currency, which resulted in inflation soaring to over 20 percent.

Erdogan insists the Gezi unrest is part of the same conspiracy that was behind the 2016 coup attempt. Ankara blames followers of U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen for the failed military takeover, along with unnamed foreign powers, widely interpreted as meaning Washington. Both Gulen and Washington deny any involvement in the coup attempt.

Pro-government media are at the forefront in defending the latest Gezi arrests, warning of new threats to Turkish democracy.

‘ ‘Switching the regime’ in Turkey through a social revolt and street terrorism is a scenario prepared and played out to make this country a hostage to the Atlantic axis again,’ wrote columnist Ibrahim Karagol of Turkey’s Yeni Safak newspaper.

Turkey’s civil society is also under growing suspicion of being complicit with alleged conspiracies against the government.

Philanthropist Osman Kavala, one of the biggest supporters of civil society organizations, was jailed last year on unspecified charges.

‘There is a person who financed the terrorists in the Gezi events. Now he is behind bars,’ Erdogan said last month, referring to Kavala without naming him.

‘And who is behind him? The famous Hungarian Jew [George] Soros. This person sends people across the world to divide and tear up nations and uses a large amount of money he possesses to this effect,’ Erdogan alleged.

Organization closed

Following the attack by Erdogan, billionaire Soros, a Hungarian-American philanthropist, announced the closure of his Open Society Foundations in Turkey.

Analysts suggest the current civil unrest in France is likely to add to Erdogan’s unease about the threat of renewed protests in Turkey. The Turkish president has repeatedly called the French protesters ‘terrorists.’

With crucial local elections next March and opinion polls indicating Erdogan’s AKP Party is losing its lead, the pressure on civil society is expected to continue, fueled by fears of unrest.

‘Much of Erdogan’s political success is built on economic prosperity,’ analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners said. ‘For the first time, many of his supporters are feeling real economic pain, pain that is likely to get worse.’

In what is seen as a politically symbolic move, the site where the Gezi unrest began is in the process of redevelopment. ‘Gezi is no more politically, and Gezi is no more physically,’ political scientist Aktar said.

‘The building where banners were hanged during the unrest is no more, just a pile of rubble. Moreover, the regime is building a huge mosque in the square. Moreover, I am sure after the local elections, Gezi Park will be turned into a shopping mall,’ he added.

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