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Istanbul police break up protest with tear gas, plastic bullets

An Istanbul court on Saturday remanded in custody nine staff from the opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper, in an intensifying crackdown a day after the leaders of the country’s main pro-Kurdish party

world Updated: Nov 05, 2016 22:47 IST
AFP
Riot police use water cannons to disperse protesters during a protest against the arrest of pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) lawmakers, in Istanbul.
Riot police use water cannons to disperse protesters during a protest against the arrest of pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) lawmakers, in Istanbul.(REUTERS Photo)

An Istanbul court on Saturday remanded in custody nine staff from the opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper, in an intensifying crackdown a day after the leaders of the country’s main pro-Kurdish party were also jailed.

The arrests added to growing international alarm over the use of a state of emergency implemented in the wake of the failed July 15 coup against critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Cumhuriyet executives and writers, including some of the most prominent names in Turkish journalism, will now be held behind bars ahead of a trial, a date for which had yet to be set.

Nine MPs from the opposition pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), including its co-leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, were also detained pending a trial on terror charges expected to begin Friday.

Istanbul police used tear gas, water cannon and plastic bullets to break up a protest by hundreds of people against the arrest of the deputies, AFP correspondents said.

At total of 13 staff from Cumhuriyet (Republic) were detained in raids on Monday in a swoop that amplified concerns about press freedoms in Turkey.

Among the nine to be held ahead of trial were Cumhuriyet’s editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, celebrated cartoonist Musa Kart and influential anti-Erdogan columnist Kadri Gursel.

However, columnists Hikmet Cetinkaya and Aydin Engin were released on bail on health grounds and because of their age. Two other suspects from the newspaper’s accounting department were released without charge.

The suspects are charged with links to the Kurdish militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the movement of US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, blamed for the failed coup bid. Gulen denies the accusations.

- ‘Worrisome trend’ -

Demirtas and Yuksekdag, meanwhile, spent a first night behind bars after their arrest on Friday.

Although their initial hearings took place in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, both were flown to prisons in the west of Turkey -- well away from their strongholds in the east.

Demirtas is now in prison in Edirne province close to the Greek and Bulgarian borders while Yuksekdag was taken to Kocaeli just east of Istanbul, reports said.

After his arrest, Demirtas said in a written statement read by his lawyer that he was the victim of a “civilian coup by the government and the (presidential) palace”.

Dogan news agency showed dramatic footage of Demirtas arriving in Edirne province on a helicopter which landed in the middle of an athletics field before he was taken to prison in a multi-vehicle convoy.

Their arrest, along with those of the seven other HDP MPs, on various charges of membership of the PKK and making “terror propaganda” for the group, sparked immediate alarm among Turkey’s Western allies.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said she was “extremely worried” over the detentions while US State Department spokesman John Kirby said there was a “worrisome trend” of limiting freedom of expression in Turkey.

- IS said to claim attack -

The jailing of the HDP MPs took place hours after a bomb attack in Diyarbakir Friday outside a police headquarters killed 11 people and wounded over 100, according to an updated toll.

The government immediately blamed the PKK for the attack. The local authorities in Diyarbakir said Saturday this was proven by intercepted radio traffic that showed a PKK operative with the code name “Kemal” had set off three tonnes of explosives.

But the Amaq news agency, which is linked to the Islamic State jihadist group, said that its fighters were behind the bombing, the SITE Intelligence Group said.

There has so far been no comment from the PKK. But the HDP suggested the attack may have targeted its leaders, saying Demirtas and Yuksekdag were held at the police complex before being taken to court.

With tensions escalating, the Turkish authorities sparked further controversy by slapping restrictions on social media and messaging services including WhatsApp.

Users were still encountering problems loading social media on Saturday and also using Virtual Private Network (VPN) connections which Turks often use to circumvent such restrictions.

Experts have said that the authorities are likely “throttling” the applications at service provider level to prevent access.

Kirby said that in a telephone call Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Turkish foreign ministry number two Umit Yalcin that “restricting the internet undermines confidence in Turkey’s democracy and economic prosperity”.