ISTANBUL – A senior European Union official on Friday criticized the Turkish police's harsh crackdown on protesters in the last week, telling an audience that included the prime minister that a "swift and transparent" investigation was needed.
The comments by Stefan Fule, the EU enlargement commissioner, came at a conference aimed at furthering the country's decades-long ambition to join the 27-nation bloc. That effort has advanced slowly, hampered by a dispute over EU-member Cyprus, Turkey's previous human rights problems and some political resistance among EU members.
Fule said people in democratic societies have the right to hold peaceful demonstrations and that police brutality was unacceptable.
In a week of demonstrations across the country, three people have been killed — two protesters and a policeman — and thousands wounded. Turkey's government has acknowledged that police used excessive force against some of the protesters.
"The duty of all of us, European Union members as much as those countries that wish to become one, is to aspire to the highest possible democratic standards and practices," Fule said during a conference in Istanbul, held near Taksim Square, where the protests began a week ago and quickly spread to over 75 cities.
"These include the freedom to express one's opinion, the freedom to assemble peacefully and freedom of media to report on what is happening as it is happening," Fule said.
Turkish media was widely criticized for not covering the initial days of a violent police crackdown on demonstrators staging a sit-in in Taksim Square's park to protest a development plan that included a shopping mall.
The protesters have occupied Gezi Park for the past week. They have vowed to stay and prevent the construction project from going ahead and cutting down trees. The protests expanded, turning into expressions of discontent with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's 10-year rule and accusing him of autocratic ways.
"Peaceful demonstrations constitute a legitimate way for these groups to express their views in a democratic society. Excessive use of force by police against these demonstrations has no place in such a democracy," Fule said.
The EU envoy said he was pleased that the government admitted that excess force did take place. He said the important thing now was to "not only to launch a swift and transparent investigation but also to bring those responsible to account."
Speaking shortly after Fule, Erdogan retorted that Turkey remained committed to joining the EU but criticized the European bloc for its own discrimination, saying support for the country's accession has plummeted to 30 percent.
"We are determined to advance on the path of EU, but it is not possible for Turkey to continue with one-sided efforts," he said.
The EU, he said, also had a record of human rights problems, noting discrimination against some ethnic groups, including Roma, also known as Gypsies.
The speech came only a few hours after Erdogan returned to Turkey following a four-day trip to North Africa. Met by more than 10,000 cheering supporters at the airport, he delivered a fiery speech in which he insisted the Turkish demonstrations were bordering on illegality and must stop immediately.
In comments to journalists who had traveled with him, Erdogan called the weeklong protests undemocratic and an attempt by a minority group to "dominate" his majority supporters.
"If we were to remain indifferent in the face of such a thing, the 50 percent who voted for (the ruling party) would tomorrow ask me why," Erdogan said.