Kafka In Istanbul

Last year’s protests in Gezi Park have spurred Recep Tayyip Erdogan into absurd action: now he’s locking up would-be protesters before they have the chance to assemble

After the debacle of the Gezi Park protests in the summer, the Turkish government has vowed: “Never again.” No more footage of police gassing unarmed protesters in the face, no more photographs of angry crowds, no more reports by Amnesty International detailing Turkey’s “brutal denial of the right to free assembly”. Enough is enough.

On October 6, a new law was proposed which gives police the power to lock up anyone whom they suspect might be about to partake in a public protest. These would-be protesters will be detained for up to 24 hours, without the need for permission from a court or judge, to ensure that nothing on the scale of Gezi ever happens again. It is, one must admit, a rather creative stroke of legislation. 

I live near Taksim Square, Istanbul, where there is now a permanent, surly police presence, and this proposal is a shade worrying on a practical level. I am young and middle-class-looking, marking me out as a likely child of the Gezi movement, a high-risk repeat offender. Should I school my features to look entirely blank when passing the hordes of police sitting lazily with sub-machine guns on their knees, aimlessly checking their phones or scanning the crowds of tourists? Or should I beam at them as I walk by, to assure them of my deep satisfaction with life, my complete disinclination to protest in any shape or form? Must I sing the praises of the ruling AKP, wear a thumbs-up badge, or a T-shirt saying “Erdoğan is my hero”? 

After ten years of power, Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP government is increasingly fond of getting its own way and has taken entirely the wrong lessons from the Gezi protests. It has conducted a comprehensive programme of revenge in the past few months, targeting anyone with the remotest connection to the protests. Not only have hundreds of student activists been arrested and detained, but those who helped them have suffered too: the doctors who treated their injuries, the lawyers who dared represent them, the media channels that showed them being beaten and shot. They have been tracked down, arrested, fined and intimidated. Now any potential protester is effectively guilty until proven innocent — of what? 

The spirit of this law does not surprise me, but its technicality does. It seeks to prevent citizens doing something entirely legal — free assembly is still a right in Turkey, at least on paper, if not in practice. The law has yet to be put through parliament, but the AKP’s hefty majority will pass it if and when the time comes, further damaging Turkey’s human rights record. What it might also do is provoke yet more demonstrations of public outrage in a Kafkaesque spiral of absurdity. What Erdoğan doesn’t realise is that the more he bangs his fist, the deeper the hole he makes for himself. This law is a King Kong thump of desperation. 

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