ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey’s deputy prime minister offered an apology for a violent crackdown on an environmental protest, in a bid to appease days of anti-government rallies across Turkey as hundreds of riot police deployed around the prime minister’s office in the capital Tuesday.
Bulent Arinc, who is standing in for the prime minister while he is out of the country, said the crackdown was “wrong and unjust.”
It was unclear, however, whether Arinc was giving the government line. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is visiting Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, has undermined statements by his ministers in the past. He has previously called protesters “looters” and dismissed the protest as acts by fringe extremists.
Thousands have joined anti-government rallies across Turkey since Friday, when police launched a pre-dawn raid against a peaceful sit-in protesting plans to uproot trees in Istanbul’s main Taksim Square. Since then, the demonstrations by mostly secular-minded Turks have spiraled into Turkey’s biggest anti-government disturbances in years, and have spread to many of the biggest cities.
A 22-year-old man died during an anti-government protest in a city near the border with Syria, with officials giving conflicting reports on what caused his death.
Protests were directed at what critics say is Erdogan’s aggressive and authoritarian style of governance. Many accuse him of forcing his conservative, religious outlook on lives in this mainly Muslim, but secular nation. Erdogan rejects the accusations, says he respects all lifestyles and insists he is the “servant” not the “master” of the people.
Speaking Tuesday, Arinc said that, “in that first (protest) action, the excessive violence exerted on people who were acting out of environmental concerns was wrong and unjust.” He added, “I apologize to those citizens.”
Arinc said the government was “sensitive” to the demands of the largely urban, pro-secular section of society that had not voted for Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted party.
“I would like to express this in all sincerity: everyone’s lifestyle is important to us and we are sensitive to them.”
Arinc was speaking after a meeting with President Abdullah Gul who, contrary to Erdogan, has praised the mostly peaceful protesters as expressing their democratic rights.
Gul and Erdogan could face off next year in Turkey’s presidential election.
The Hatay province governor’s office initially said the man who died, Abdullah Comert, was shot Monday during a demonstration in the city of Antakya. It backtracked after the province’s chief prosecutor’s office said an autopsy showed Comert had received a blow to the head and that there was no trace of a gunshot wound.
Gov. Celalettin Lekesiz did not respond to a journalist’s question as to whether the man may have died after being hit in the head by a gas canister.
Arinc said the government was taking “all measures” to ensure that similar “bad incidents” were not repeated as police subdued protests.
Clashes continued late into the night Monday in Istanbul, Ankara and other cities, but Arinc said the more violent protests were subsiding.
Police have been accused of using disproportionate force in trying to break up demonstrations. A human rights group, Turkish Human Rights Association, has said some 1,000 protesters were subjected to “ill-treatment and torture.”
The United Nations human rights office in Geneva expressed concern over the excessive use of force by police and called on Turkey to respect the people’s right to peaceful protests and to promptly investigate abuses and bring perpetrators to justice. It also called on protesters to remain peaceful.
In a town near Turkey’s third city, Izmir, a group of protesters attacked the local branch of Erdogan’s ruling party and set the building on fire. The blaze was quickly extinguished.
In a boisterous debate in Parliament, Interior Minister Muammer Guler defended police use of tear gas against demonstrators trying to reach government buildings.
“Should we have allowed them to march and take over Parliament?” he asked. “We do not have the luxury to allow illegal acts and will never have that luxury.”
Arinc and other officials did not immediately respond to claims that riot police had erased or painted over numbers on their helmets that allow people to report them in the event of abuse. Arinc said he had no information on the issue.
Guler, the interior minister, said protesters had destroyed CCTV cameras around Taksim, and the vandalism would make it harder for the government to detect abuse by police and identify perpetrators.
The Turkish Human Rights Association said some 3,300 people nationwide were detained during four days of protests, although most have since been released. At least 1,300 people were injured, the group said, although it said the true figures were difficult to come by.
On Tuesday, hundreds of riot police backed by water cannons were stationed around Ankara’s main square near the prime minister’s office.
In Istanbul, many people slept in the shade of trees on the grass of the park that sparked the protests, while others walked around with bags cleaning up trash. Protesters have set up an area in the center where they’re collecting food donations.
Overturned cars and burned-out vans stood on the edges, spray-painted with graffiti.
A public service workers trade-union confederation called a two-day strike in support of the protests, and thousands of members marched to Taksim Square Tuesday. There was, however, no evidence of any major disruption to services.
In a further step toward easing the protests, Arinc was scheduled on Wednesday to meet with members of a civil initiative established by a group of activists, architects and academicians to protect Taksim.