The choking stench of tear gas enveloped central Istanbul on June 26, 2016, as activists dodged rubber bullets while protesting a government decision to ban the annual Istanbul Pride parade.
Thousands of riot police were deployed into the city’s downtown, guarding all entrances leading to the Taksim Square. Anti-riot water cannon vehicles dotted the main street as special units launched their attack.
The Istanbul governor’s office had cancelled the parade earlier in June, citing security concerns.
Local municipal councillor Sedat Cakmak says she accompanied several international Pride visitors downtown on Sunday and was shocked by what she witnessed.
“It seemed like the police were targeting anyone wearing anything with a rainbow on it, and if they saw more than three people coming together the police intervened,” Cakmak says.
“It didn’t make any sense, people were just going about their daily lives doing what they would normally do, but the police were targeting them if it appeared as though they were LGBTI.”
Police and activists played cat and mouse through the side streets well into Sunday evening.
At least 19 people were temporarily detained, while several others required medical attention after being overcome by tear gas. One week earlier, the Transsexual March organized to kick off Istanbul Pride week was muffled in similar fashion.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) says the government has made a mistake.
“If there are fears that people participating in Pride could be attacked, then that’s a reason to step up protection, it’s not a reason to violate their rights further,” says Charlie Radcliffe, head of intergovernmental affairs for the OHCHR.
“By cancelling these events on grounds of security, you’re in effect prioritizing the rights of the people who want to perpetrate violence, over the rights of the people who want to take part peacefully in Pride.”
(In this video, shot by journalist Joti Heir, riot police can be seen charging down the street, then heard firing rubber bullets and tear gas./Joti Heir/ Daily Xtra)
Just two years ago, more than 100,000 Pride parade attendees marched down the main street in Taksim, which is a hub for entertainment and tourism. The 2014 Pride parade broke records and was considered the largest gathering of its kind in a Muslim country.
Cakmak says Turkey’s 2015 general election caused the marked change in attitude toward the LGBT community.
“In the past few years since Gezi, the LGBTI community has become stronger, more visible and more accepted by general society and this means they have gained some political power, they are openly supported by members of certain political parties,” Cakmak says.
The politician and activist says increased visibility for LGBT Turks has meant a decrease in freedoms rather than an increase.
“As long as the community was invisible, the government left it alone. But now that it has a voice through various political parties, the government sees it as more than a harmless group politically.”
There were two general elections in Turkey in 2015. The first took place prior to Pride week. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) did not win the majority and a second election was called for November.
Cakmak says that’s when the government turned its focus on the LGBT community and cancelled the 2015 parade. Authorities cited a conflict with the holy month of Ramadan as the reason for the cancellation, but critics say the party was pandering to its conservative base to rally political support. The record-breaking 2014 parade also took place during the month of Ramadan.
(Activists brave the threat of police crackdown to participate in Pride in Istanbul, June 26, 2016./Joti Heir/Daily Xtra)
This year, security concerns for parade-goers were cited as the reason for the cancellation of the parade.
Prior to the governorship’s official ban, ultra-right nationalist group Alperen Hearths threatened to take matters into its own hands if the government did not stop the parade from going ahead.
“Dear state officials, who close your eyes and ears to this immorality and allow this, we are calling on you to perform your duties to stop this immorality. Otherwise the Alperen Hearths, who are the representatives of the people, will perform their duties on this soil,” said Kursat Mican, head of the Istanbul Province branch of the group.
“They can do whatever they want by gathering somewhere, but we definitely don’t want them to walk naked on the sacred soil of our country in the blessed month of Ramadan,” he added.
The statement could be viewed as hate speech and certainly threatening, but hate speech is not a crime in Turkey. And although discrimination is a crime, sexuality and gender identity are not mentioned within the Turkish Criminal Code.
“This is a big handicap for us and makes it very hard to prosecute hate crimes,” says human rights lawyer Rozerin Seda Kip.
“The state’s job is to protect all of its citizens and instead of taking security measures, the governorship took the easy way out.”
Seda Kip says a complaint has been filed with the prosecutor’s office about the comments made by members of Alpern Hearth, but says she has little confidence that the offenders will be prosecuted.
“Mostly, when we file such cases, the case gets thrown out because the individual or organization is considered to be exercising their freedom of speech, and right now there are so many things happening in Turkey that LGBTI issues aren’t considered important.”
(Police presence on the streets of Istanbul on Pride day./Joti Heir/Daily Xtra)
With security cited as the reason for the cancellation of the parade and a slew of deadly attacks in the country, Turkish society has little appetite to intervene.
Istanbul has been the target of three bombings in the past year alone, the most recent on June 7 in a tourist hotspot, where a bomb killed 12 people, including seven police officers. The recent attacks in both Istanbul and the state capital have been claimed by ISIL and Kurdish groups respectively.
A leaked military document listing ISIL targets in Turkey included KaosGL, the oldest LGBT rights organization in the country.
As a result of the leaked document and the military’s confirmation of the validity of the leaked document, KaosGL offices have been closed since March.
“We are in a very difficult situation here, we have a very real threat from ISIL as well as radical Islamic groups, and we have a governorship that uses security as an excuse to prevent us from exercising our rights,” Cakmak says.
“It is a very, very sad feeling when you can’t trust your state to protect you.”
Homosexuality is not a crime in Turkey, but there is little in place legally to protect the rights of LGBT individuals.
Lawyers and activists are documenting abuses against LGBT individuals, to present evidence to an international human rights body within the next year.