Turkish unions strike to support activists

Labour groups fanned a wave of defiance against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's authority on Monday, leading rallies and a one-day strike to support activists whose two-week standoff with the government has shaken Turkey's secular democracy.

Police maintain lockdown on Taksim Square, epicentre of protests

A protester is attacked by water cannon in Kizilay square in central Ankara on Sunday. Unions in the country are calling for a one-day walkout aimed at maintaining pressure on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Labour groups fanned a wave of defiance against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's authority on Monday, leading rallies and a one-day strike to support activists whose two-week standoff with the government has shaken Turkey's secular democracy.

Riot police again deployed in Turkey's two main cities, and authorities kept up their unyielding stance against the street demonstrations. But Monday's police sweep was less forceful than in recent days — with only scattered firing of tear gas and water cannon on pockets of protesters.

After activists were ousted from their sit-in in Istanbul's Gezi Park over the weekend, two labour confederations that represent some 330,000 workers picked up the slack Monday by calling a strike and demonstrations nationwide. Unionists turned up by the thousands in Ankara, Istanbul, coastal Izmir and elsewhere.

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The turnout defied Turkey's interior minister, Muammer Guler, who warned that anyone taking part in unlawful demonstrations would "bear the legal consequences." But one analyst called the rallies a "legitimate and a lawful expression of constitutional rights."

"People are raising their voices against the excessive use of police force," said Koray Caliskan, a political science professor at Istanbul's Bosphorus University. Demonstrators, he said, were showing they were no longer cowed by authorities, and "the fear threshold has been broken."

In a sign that authorities were unbowed and increasingly impatient, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc floated the prospect that authorities could call in troops to quash the ongoing protests.

Erdogan's opponents have grown increasingly suspicious about what they call a gradual erosion of freedoms and secular values under his Islamic-rooted ruling party. It has passed new curbs on alcohol and tried, but later abandoned its plans, to limit women's access to abortion.

The government set off protests nationwide and drew criticism abroad over a police crackdown that began May 31 against environmentalists and other activists in Istanbul's Taksim Square who were protesting against plans to tear down trees and re-develop the adjacent Gezi Park. Thousands have flooded the streets nightly since then, many honking car horns and waving Turkish flags.

Erdogan, who has held power for 10 years and was re-elected in 2011, mobilized his supporters over the weekend in two huge rallies — insisting his duty was to keep order, railing against media coverage of the protests, and lashing out at unspecified foreigners whom he said want to hurt Turkey.

TV images Monday showed crowds of government supporters in Istanbul facing down some protesters and chanting "the hands targeting the police should be broken." On Twitter, a trending topic urged protesters to stay home — some expressing concern that pro-government mobs might attack them.

The labour rallies had a more structured feel than the counterculture-style sit-in at Gezi Park's colorful tent city, and the work stoppage involved many professionals who make up a liberal, urban class that mostly backs the anti-Erdogan protesters.

But labour strikes often have little visible impact on daily life in Turkey, a country of about 75 million, and Monday's rallies were no different in that regard.

Feride Aksu Tanik, of the Turkish Doctors Union, said it had called its work stoppage "to protest against the police force that attacks children, youngsters and everyone violently, and to the detentions of doctors who provide voluntary services to the injured."

Turkey's doctors association said Monday that four people, including a police officer, had died in violence linked to the crackdown, and an investigation was ongoing into the death of a fifth person who was exposed to tear gas. More than 7,800 people have been injured; six remained in critical condition and 11 people lost their eyesight.

Merkel critical of crackdown

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday criticized the Turkish security forces' crackdown on street protests as "much too strong" and said she was "appalled" to see footage from the past weekend when police forces moved in to clear Istanbul's Gezi Park.

In Ankara, thousands of demonstrators waved union flags, jumped and whistled near central Kizilay Square just 50 meters from riot police and a line of trucks. Turkey's NTV television reported that police issued warnings to disperse. After about three hours, the protesters left peacefully.

Pockets of unrest erupted in Istanbul, with police resorting to water cannon and tear gas at times.

The tough tactics used by the government to disperse protesters during the past two weeks have drawn international criticism.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany — home to some 3 million Turks — told German broadcaster RTL she was "appalled" to see footage of police forces moving in to clear Istanbul's Gezi Park over the weekend. She criticized the crackdown by Turkish police as "much too strong."