June 18, 2013

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s prime minister on Tuesday brushed aside international criticism over his government’s crackdown on widespread demonstrations and vowed to increase the police’s powers to deal with the unrest. Meanwhile, more than 90 people were detained in police raids linked to the protests.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s defiant stance appeared aimed at shoring up his conservative base in Turkey, where the rallies have exposed fissures between urban and largely secularist Turks and the more religious classes. But Erdogan’s bellicosity has dented his global reputation; EU officials on Tuesday nixed a visit due to some of his comments.

Anti-government demonstrations sprouted across Turkey after May 31, when riot police brutally cracked down on peaceful environmental activists who opposed plans to remove trees and develop Gezi Park, which lies next to Istanbul’s famed Taksim Square.

The crackdowns have continued since as protests have spread and attracted a range of groups unhappy with the 10-year rule of Erdogan, whom many believe is trying to gradually impose his religious and conservative views in Turkey, which has long had a secular democracy.

Four protesters and one police officer have been killed, and Turkey’s doctors association said an investigation was underway into the death of a fifth person who was exposed to tear gas. More than 7,800 people have been injured; six are in critical condition and 11 lost their eyesight after being hit by flying objects.

Police on Tuesday raided homes and offices in the capital, Ankara, and Istanbul, detaining at least 92 people suspected of involvement in violence. The state-run Anadolu news agency said the suspects were detained for allegedly destroying public property, inciting people to revolt or attacking police.

Addressing lawmakers belonging to his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, Erdogan declared that riot police had acted with restraint and that their powers would be increased, giving them more leeway in dealing with future demonstrations.

“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. In response to the ongoing confrontations, some protesters have adopted a special maneuver to get their point across: standing still.

The trend was launched by performance artist Erdem Gunduz, who stood silently for hours in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square on Monday night as others joined him and replicated the protest in other cities.

As the numbers swelled to a few hundred, police broke up the demonstration in Taksim late Monday, but by Tuesday evening dozens of protesters could be seen standing motionless in the square. The United Nations and New York-based Human Rights Watch have both expressed alarm over reports that tear gas canisters and pepper spray were fired directly at demonstrators and into closed spaces, actions that significantly increase the danger posed to the individuals targeted.

Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said law enforcement bodies must be held accountable, and that “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. Also Tuesday, a United Nations spokesman said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was saddened by the deaths and injuries in Turkey and urged “maximum restraint and the pursuit of constructive dialogue in order to resolve differences and avoid further violent confrontation.”

“He believes that stability is best assured through such dialogue and when the rights to peaceful assembly and the freedom of expression are fully respected,” said the spokesman, Eduardo del Buey. Turkey has long aspired to join the European Union, but the events of recent weeks have strained its relations with the bloc.

EU lawmakers said they’d be scrapping a Wednesday visit to Turkey after Erdogan last week issued stinging criticism of an EU resolution that expressed concern over the “disproportionate and excessive use of force” by Turkish police against the demonstrators.

Erdogan had declared that he “won’t recognize the decision that the European Union Parliament is going to take” and asked them, “Who do you think you are by taking such a decision?” European parliamentarian Elmar Brok said the Turkish government “should understand how to deal with criticism.”

__ Edith M. Lederer in New York contributed.