ANKARA, Turkey – Scorning international criticism over the force used to quell a wave of anti-government protests, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday defended the nation's police and vowed to increase their powers to deal with unrest.
The government has been criticized for the disproportionate use of force by the police in anti-government protests that have swept Turkey for more than two weeks. It was a brutal operation against peaceful environmental protesters at a park adjacent to Istanbul's main square, Taksim, on May 31 that sparked nationwide demonstrations and dented Erdogan's international image.
Four protesters and one police officer have been killed during the protests and Turkey's doctors association said an investigation was underway into the death of a fifth protester who was exposed to tear gas. More than 7,800 people have been injured; six remain in critical condition and 11 people have lost their eyesight after being hit by flying objects.
Addressing legislators of his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, Erdogan said riot police deployed to disperse protesters had acted with restraint and said their powers would be increased, allowing them more leeway in dealing with future protests.
"Our security forces put up a successful and extremely patient struggle against the acts of violence, by remaining within the limits set by democracy and the law," Erdogan said.
Police on Tuesday carried out raids at homes and offices, detaining at least 87 people suspected of involvement in violence. Overnight, police broke up a silent protest at Taksim Square by hundreds mimicking a lone man who stood silently for hours in a passive anti-government protest.
The United Nations human rights office on Tuesday asked Turkish authorities to investigate reports that tear gas canisters and pepper spray were fired directly at demonstrators and into closed spaces.
"Ensuring accountability of law enforcement bodies for their actions is essential in times of social unrest," said Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. "The government must also provide adequate reparation to victims of excessive use of force and other serious human rights violations by security forces."
Erdogan did not mention the reports of tear gas being fired into closed spaces or directly at protesters, but told lawmakers it was police officers' "natural right" to fire tear gas.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch late Monday said police use of tear gas in confined spaces "showed dangerous disregard for the well-being — and indeed the lives — of protesters and bystanders."
"The repeated police violence against people who are dissatisfied with the government policies has deeply polarized Turkey," Human Rights Watch said. "The government urgently needs to change police tactics and issue a clear signal for restraint."
Riot police on Tuesday were again deployed in Turkey's two main cities, keeping an unyielding stance against the street demonstrations. Thousands have flooded the streets nightly, many honking car horns and waving Turkish flags.
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 to limit women's access to abortion, but later abandoned those plans.