ISTANBUL — Turkey reopened an Istanbul park at the heart of last month's demonstrations against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and protest leaders called a rally there for Monday evening in defiance of the city governor.
Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu announced the reopening three weeks after riot police expelled protesters from Gezi Park following a fortnight of frequently violent protests against plans to redevelop the area.
The protests rapidly mutated into nationwide demonstrations against Erdogan, accused by critics after a decade in power of ruling in an increasingly authoritarian fashion. The unrest died down in late June, but on Saturday police fired teargas and water cannon to disperse protesters who sought to march on Taksim Square and the adjoining park.
“We have seen with the visit carried out today that all our work has been completed,” Mutlu told reporters in the park, which has been spruced up with the planting of new trees, plants and lawns since the protesters were evicted on June 15.
Soon after the opening, hundreds of people young and old converged on the park, some strolling along its paths and many lounging on benches and newly-laid lawn under the shade of trees on a hot Istanbul afternoon.
Small groups, both pro- and anti-government, gathered to discuss the protests and simmering tensions were evident.
“People became brothers here, and it will be very crowded tonight because we all missed that brotherhood. This park will always be the symbol of people's unity, power and harmony,” university student Ozer Sari, 22, told Reuters.
Nearby, retiree Abdullah Dogan, 54, dismissed the idea that the protests were about protecting the park.
“This was about overthrowing the government, a government which did its duty and took over the park, cleaned it and returned it to the people in better shape,” he said.
Protest meeting planned
Taksim Solidarity, combining political and non-governmental groups opposed to the construction of a replica Ottoman era barracks on the site of the park, has called for its supporters to hold a public meeting there at 7:00 p.m. (1600 GMT).
Governor Mutlu warned against renewed demonstrations.
“Blocking the parks, making them areas for demonstrations, preventing children, elderly and people from using these areas and turning this into a security problem - we would never ever allow that,” he said.
Four people were killed and 7,500 wounded in last month's police crackdown, according to the Turkish Medical Association.
The Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner pressed Turkey on Monday to investigate reports police used excessive force to contain the protests and punish anyone found guilty.
Last week it emerged that a Turkish court had canceled the Taksim Square redevelopment project, including the construction of the replica barracks, although the state authorities can appeal against the ruling.
The ruling marked a victory for the coalition against the project and a blow for Erdogan, who stood firm against protests and riots he said were stoked by terrorists and looters.
Erdogan has said he would wait for the judicial process to be completed before proceeding with the Taksim plans, one of several large projects for Istanbul, including a major airport, a large Mosque and a canal to ease Bosphorus traffic.
The protests were unprecedented in Erdogan's rule, which began in 2002 with the election of his AK Party. He has pressed significant reforms in the economy and curtailed the power of a military that had toppled four governments in four decades.
Opponents argue that during the June unrest he appealed increasingly to Islamist elements of his AK Party faithful.
If Turkey's top administrative court subsequently rules in favor of the development on appeal, Erdogan has still pledged to hold a referendum in Istanbul on the government's plan. But he will drop the project if the court rejects it.