The LGBTI rights struggle continues in Turkey

By Begum Basdas, AI Turkey Campaigner and Milena Buyum, Campaigner on Turke

The annual Istanbul Pride March has been the one space where most LGBTI people and their allies have been able to collectively celebrate Pride in Turkey. Every year, thousands have come from all corners of the country in increasing numbers to reclaim the public space and raise their voices for equality and against discrimination. As is the case elsewhere, Istanbul Pride March is an important statement about the visibility of LGBTI people and an opportunity for their allies to show solidarity. 

But since last year, this highly visible celebration has been unjustifiably and unlawfully suppressed.

In June 2015, Istanbul Governor Vasip Şahin banned Istanbul Pride on the day it was due to take place, and police attacked revellers with water cannon, tear gas and pepper ball projectiles. 

This year the Ankara Pride march, which had been due to take place on 22 May, was also banned, as was Izmir Pride on 4 June. 

The writing was on the wall for Istanbul too. 

Crackdown

When we arrived in Taksim Square at around 2pm on 26 June there were at least two dozen buses used to detain people, dozens of water cannon and armoured vehicles, and hundreds of riot police. 

Walking down Istiklal, a shopping hub at the heart of Istanbul, we saw each and every side street blocked by 10 to 15 riot police. Shoppers and water cannon, tourists and riot police filled the streets. A surreal sight for the untrained eye, but for the people of Istanbul an unfortunately familiar scene since the 2013 Gezi Park protests that were violently suppressed. 

We arrived in Tünel, the other end of Istiklal Street, at around 4.30pm, shortly before the press conference arranged by the Istanbul Pride Organising Committee. There were already more than a hundred riot police taking position in all corners of the small square, with journalists and many cameras. Shortly after we arrived we were told by police officers to ‘clear the square’ for no apparent reason. As we left to go back towards Taksim, we heard that a German MEP, Terry Reintke, had been detained with a few others on the very spot we had just left. Fortunately, news of her release reached us shortly after. 

Tear gas and plastic bullets

As we walked back along Istiklal we began to smell tear gas. Dozens of people were walking in the opposite direction coughing, confirming to us that the police had already began using the noxious chemicals. When we reached Mis Sokak, the site of the most forceful police attacks on Trans Pride on 19th June, we were met by up to 100 riot police. 

Mis Sokak is a short, lively street off Istiklal, a stone throw from Taksim Square. There are many cafes and bars and it is not unusual for people sit and stand outside on the street. For the next two hours, we saw four or five instances of police running down the street and firing tear gas canisters and plastic bullets at LGBTI activists and journalists, who were simply standing around in the street. 

Tear gas sticks to your clothes, your hair, it covers your skin. If you rub your eyes without washing your hands it is like being subjected to it all over again. In a confined space, even shuffling your clothes can give you another unexpected dose. Its indiscriminate use adversely affects people with health conditions such as asthma. 

Plastic bullets, despite being tiny, hurt badly. They leave small pink bruise marks and can be very dangerous if you get caught on the head or face. We both got our share of the plastic bullets when we were observing the police’s actions.

At the end of the day 29 activists and supporters were detained. Some were released after a brief period of detention, others later in the evening after being taken into custody and identity checks. One activist was referred for a criminal investigation, but was released without being charged. People who were detained were either just standing around, taking photographs, attempting to read a press statement or merely walking on the street. One activist told us that he was stopped and asked, “Do you have any LGBTI connections?” In response to this absurd question, the activist felt he had to reply “no” to avoid detention. The police officer further commented “good, keep it that way” before letting the activist go.

The reason given by the Governorship for the ban had referred to the event being a threat to the ‘normal daily flow of life’, but anyone watching the scene would conclude it was the police’s actions that disrupted the very thing the ban was purporting to maintain, in the most arbitrary and unlawful way, without warning. 

Unlawful and unjustifiable 

What the police did on Sunday was unlawful and unjustifiable. It was yet another shocking display of a stubborn crushing of most fundamental rights; the right to protest and raise your voice against inequality and discrimination. 

International solidarity is crucial in opposing such attacks on our freedoms. Since the launch of the campaign to support the Trans and LGBTI Pride marches in Istanbul, Amnesty International activists around the world have sent hundreds of solidarity messages on social media and joined the urgent action calling on Turkish authorities to lift the ban and protect Pride participants. Thousands of people around the world participated in Amnesty’s #MyIstanbulPride campaign.

We didn’t overturn the ban this year but this is not over. We will continue to campaign to ensure the rights of LGBTI people and their allies to protest are upheld, and stand in solidarity with them.