Who are the men in civilian clothing attacking Turkish protesters?
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Since Friday, protests against Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conservative Islamic government have been springing up in Turkey’s main cities. The crackdown on protesters has been very violent, particularly in Izmir, on the country’s western coast, where men dressed in civilian clothing and armed with long batons have been attacking them, working alongside the police.
A man in civilian clothing armed with a long baton in the streets of Izmir, Sunday night, next to the police.
Since Friday, protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conservative Islamic government have been springing up in Turkey’s main cities. The crackdown on protesters has been very violent, particularly in Izmir, on the country’s western coast, where men dressed in civilian clothing and armed with long batons have been attacking them, working alongside the police.
Men dressed in civilian clothing run after protesters starting at 1’10. Video filmed on Sunday in Izmir. Video by Tülay Bayir.
Izmir is one of the first cities where protests broke out. This protest movement developed following a protest organized last Monday in Istanbul against the razing of Gezi park — one of the few remaining public parks in the Turkish megalopolis — which is to be replaced by a mall.
The protesters denounce what they see as the government's increasingly authoritarian regime. They believe the government’s economic reforms have destabilised the jobs market and oppose the “Islamisation” of Turkish society, notably plans to build a mosque in Taksim Square, the heart of modern Istanbul.
Of the major Turkish cities, Izmir is one of the few that aren’t run by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Its government is dominated by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has social democratic tendencies and stands in opposition to the AKP. Since Friday, about 10,000 people have come out to protest in the streets of Izmir, at first peacefully before tensions rose when the police attacked demonstrators with tear gas.
Scuffles with police continued throughout the weekend. On Sunday, protesters set fire to the AKP headquarters in Izmir, and again clashed with police.
“They came out a couple hours after a speech by Erdogan calling on his supporters to mobilise”
I have been following the protests in Izmir since the first day, on May 31. There were two types of policemen: some were wearing helmets and had shields, whereas the others were dressed in civilian clothes and wore baseball caps.
It is only on Sunday that I saw a third type appear. They came out in support of the police. I asked a plainclothes officer who they were, but he only said that these men came “from above”. Even if we cannot be completely sure about anything, there are several clues that tie these men to the AKP party.
First of all, these men appeared several hours after a speech by Erdogan trying to intimidate protesters, in which he said: “For every 100,000 protesters, I will bring out a million from my party”. Furthermore, they are armed with sticks very similar to the plainclothes police's white batons, except that theirs are longer, heavier, and are occasionally black instead of white. I don’t think they are policemen: the police, whether in civilian clothing or not, are always well dressed and shaven, given their line of work, whereas these men for the most part are not.
Men dressed in civilian clothes, armed with black batons, run alongside police after protesters. Video filmed by our Observer.
Izmir’s city centre is in part made up of parallel and perpendicular streets. The protesters had chosen to place their barricades at the main intersections. The regular police force intervened with armed vehicles and shot tear gas canisters at the crowd, forcing them to flee into the narrower streets. I then saw these men in civilian clothes run after them. Several protesters told me they were very violently beaten by these men, and were then driven to the police station and locked up for the night.
In the streets of Izmir, on Sunday night. Photo by Stratos Moraitis.
I haven’t left Izmir since the start of the protests, but I have not been hearing anything about similar civilian groups in other cities. Given that Izmir is governed by a party opposed to the AKP, if these men are indeed linked to the powers that be, it would not be surprising that they would have been shipped here first to suppress protests in the city perceived as being the most rebellious.