(AFP) ISTANBUL: Hundreds of opponents of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday marched through the center of Istanbul to mark five years since mass rallies broke out in a major challenge to his rule.
The protests began in late May 2013 in response to plans to build a shopping complex on Istanbul’s Gezi Park, just off the central Taksim Square, modeled on an Ottoman-era barracks that had previously stood there before being demolished.
But what began as a grassroots protest against the redevelopment of one of Istanbul’s rare green spaces rapidly turned into a nationwide wave of anger against Erdogan, then prime minister, with rallies across the country.
Watched by a large contingent of anti-riot police, protesters marched in the direction of Taksim Square, brandishing the slogan “the darkness will go, Gezi will stay,” AFP correspondents said.
They were unable to reach Gezi Park itself, which had been blocked off by police barricades since the afternoon. But as Turkey prepares for key June 24 elections, there was no major confrontation between police and protesters.
“We are the Gezi protesters, they (the government) are about to go,” read another slogan.
Eight people were killed nationwide in the violence as the police cracked down on the protests, which fizzled out by the end of June 2013. A handful of police officers were later jailed in isolated cases but activists have complained it was far from enough.
Protesters at the Istanbul march held placards with the names and the faces of those killed in the protests.
Among those killed was 15-year-old Berkin Elvan who died on March 11, 2014 following 269 days in a coma after being hit in the head by a tear gas canister fired by Istanbul anti-riot police. He has now become a modern icon for protesters against Erdogan.
His mother was among those present at the protest, reports said.
Half a decade on, opinions remain divided over the Gezi Park uprising, with those who took part in the protests expressing nostalgia for a time when they felt able to take to the streets and express themselves.
“Gezi was a rebellion and a protest where the people and workers in Turkey felt themselves free for the first time,” said protester Fatma Yildirim. “It is very important to be here after five years.”
Erdogan and government supporters scorn the Gezi protesters who they accuse of blocking a needed urban project and being used by his political opponents.
But analysts agree that the Gezi protests, along with the failed coup of 2016, were key turning points in Turkish modern history.
Protests on any large scale are now rare with unauthorized gatherings often dispersed by police using water cannon and physical force.