Turkish police detain over 100 in crackdown on May Day marches

(Updates with marches in Ankara, Diyarbakır)

Turkish police have detained over 100 people across the country attempting to march to commemorate International Workers’ Day on Wednesday and blocked off the centre of the commercial capital Istanbul and other cities in an effort to prevent the violence that has erupted in previous years.

A total of 137 people were detained in Istanbul alone, Euronews reported. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke from the Presidential Palace in Ankara on the occasion of May Day, saying that the government had rolled up its sleeves to prevent “organisations which don’t even represent 1 percent of Turkey’s workers,“ from creating disorder across the country on May 1st.

“We have left the bad images of the past era behind us. There is no conflict or noise on May 1st,’’ independent news site T24 quoted the Turkish president as saying. 

Erdoğan also added that people no longer trust those who have turned activism into a profession and are looking to create chaos in the country.

Tragedy struck the celebrations in the southeastern province of Şanlıurfa, where a bus carrying health workers to local celebrations overturned, killing five people and injuring 14. Union groups called off concerts scheduled later in the day in response to the accident.

Press reports said police had detained demonstrators among crowds marching towards Istanbul’s central Taksim Square in Beyoğlu, a district on the city’s European side.

Video footage shared by unionist news site Sendika showed a melee between police officers and members of the revolutionary left-wing People’s Liberation Party (HKP) marching in the nearby district of Beşiktaş. Around 20 people have reportedly been detained.

Secularist newspaper Cumhuriyet reported demonstrators had also been detained near Taksim Square and in the Şişli district.

Taksim Square holds great symbolic importance as a gathering point for political demonstrations, and has been the scene of some of Turkey’s most significant protests, as well as some of its most tragic.

Unidentified gunmen opened fire on left-wing demonstrators who gathered in the square on May 1, 1977, killing 37 people.

Successive Turkish government have placed strict controls on demonstrations in the square since then. These were relaxed in 2010, but the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government tightened restrictions again after a nationwide wave of anti-government protests was triggered by demonstrations around the square in 2013.

Dozens of people were detained as they attempted to reach Taksim Square in each of the last three Workers' Day celebrations, Turkish secularist news site Bianet reported.

This year police again placed large barricades on the streets leading to Taksim Square, leaving it almost completely deserted and preventing some from reaching their workplaces, left-wing daily Sözcü reported.

Thousands, including political parties, football supporters' groups, and women's and LGBTQI associations, gathered in a marketplace in another Istanbul district, Bakırköy, which is the city's government-approved site for demonstrations this year.

Workers' Day celebrations took place around the country, with tens of thousands reported at the gathering in Tandoğan Square in the centre of Turkey's capital city, Ankara.

The demonstrations in Ankara reportedly included vocal backing of the Kurdish political cause, including calls of support for Leyla Güven, a deputy for the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), whose partial hunger strike reached its 175th day on Wednesday.

Güven and other HDP deputies have been striking in protest at the conditions of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has fought the Turkish state for Kurdish self-rule since 1984.

Support for Güven and the hunger strikers was also on display in Diyarbakır, the largest city in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast, where Workers' Day demonstrations were held at the Istasyon square.

The crowds chanted “political prisoners are our honour” and “Leyla Güven is our honour” at the demonstration, which was attended by lawmakers from the HDP and main opposition Republican People's Party, as well as representatives from several of the country's largest union federations.

Turkey’s first large-scale May Day celebrations of Turkey took place in Taksim Square with the participation of 20,000 people in 1976, Bianet news site reported. 

Last year, the İstanbul Directorate General of Security announced that 84 people were detained in relation with the day.

In 2017, 165 people who attempted to take to Taksim Square were detained after Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu announced that Labor Day would not be celebrated in the location.

In 2016, the Governorship of İstanbul closed all roads leading to Taksim Square. Celebrations were held at Istanbul’s Bakırköy district instead and five people were detained. Meanwhile, 52 people attempting to reach Taksim were taken into custody.

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