Middle East

Istanbul plans redevelopment of controversial protest park

Riot police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators during a protest at Taksim Square in central Istanbul July 6, 2013. REUTERS/Serkan Senturk

ISTANBUL: Turkish authorities said Wednesday they intend to go ahead with the redevelopment of Istanbul's Gezi Park, the same project that sparked deadly nationwide anti-government protests last year.

The controversial plans to raze the park and rebuild an Ottoman-era army barracks on the site, which is adjacent to the main Taksim Square, have been included in the Istanbul municipality's strategic agenda for 2015-2016.

The total budget for the project, named "The Urban Reconstruction of Taksim Square and the Taksim Barracks," is set at 12 million lira ($5.4 million, 4.3 million euros), private Dogan news agency said.

The municipality, controlled by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), confirmed the plan but said that it would be subject to a court ruling and would then be put to a referendum.

"The project will be cancelled if the court rules against the redevelopment," it said in a statement.

"But even if the court rules in favor of the redevelopment, there will be a referendum in any case."

The plan includes the construction of a replica of the barracks -- known as the Topcu Kislasi in Turkish -- which was built in the early 19th century during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Selim III.

The barracks, seen as an assertion of the Ottoman Empire's might and its Islamic heritage, were demolished in 1940 by the secular government of the time on the advice of French urban planner Henri Prost.

An initially small-scale campaign to save Gezi Park in May 2013 eventually drew an estimated three million protesters in a nationwide outpouring of anger at the perceived authoritarian tendencies of the Islamic-rooted government.

Eight people died and thousands were injured in the ensuing violence as police launched a brutal crackdown, frequently employing tear gas and water cannon.

In a bid to end the protests, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then prime minister, agreed to halt the park's redevelopment and offered to hold a referendum.

A court later overturned a judgement allowing the redevelopment of the park because of a lack of public consultation.

"There will be retaliation'

However it was not clear whether the municipality's plans mean work will resume at the park, which is shut down at the slightest sign of public dissent.

On Tuesday night bulldozers began digging to erect a bus stop just outside the Gezi Park but workers had to stop following an angry reaction from activists.

By Wednesday, the space had been well-covered with grass.

Erdogan's government is frequently criticized for its ambitious construction plans that include a third airport in Istanbul and a third bridge across the Bosphorus.

He has also come under fire over a new 1,000-room presidential palace in Ankara that is costing Turkey more than $600 million.

Activists have already vowed to take to the streets should the plans for Taksim Square go forward.

"It is an insult to millions of people living in this city," said Ali Cerkezoglu, a doctor who is among the 26 alleged leaders of Taksim Solidarity, the main activist group behind the protests, who are currently on trial for their roles.

"It is disgraceful," he said, quoted by the Cumhuriyet daily. "The combative people of this land will not bow to these fait accomplis. There will be a retaliation in kind."

Carsi Group, the fan club of Istanbul top flight football side Besiktas which was a prominent force in the protests, warned of more demonstrations.

"The team shall meet again soon," said the group, some of whose members are on trial over their involvement in the protests.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu last month labelled Taksim "the ugliest square in the world", indicating the government was still hoping to redevelop it.

Many Istanbul residents prefer to give the square a wide berth, finding it a noisy concrete wasteland with little attraction or character, dominated by tourists.





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