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Turkish court blocks disputed park project

Two protesters lie on the ground of Taksim Square as they stage a silent protest in Istanbul June 29, 2013. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
Two protesters lie on the ground of Taksim Square as they stage a silent protest in Istanbul June 29, 2013. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Ayla Jean Yackley

(Reuters) - A Turkish court has canceled an Istanbul building project backed by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan which provided the trigger for nationwide anti-government demonstrations last month, a copy of the court decision showed.

Authorities may well appeal against cancellation of plans for a replica Ottoman-era barracks on Istanbul's Taksim Square. But the ruling marked a victory for a coalition of political forces and a blow for Erdogan, who stood fast against protests and riots he said were stoked by terrorists and looters.

Can Atalay, a lawyer for the Chamber of Architects which brought the lawsuit, said the administrative court ruled in early June at the height of the unrest that the plan violated preservation rules and unacceptably changed the square's identity. It was not clear why it had only now been released.

"This decision applies to all of the work at Taksim Square ... The public-works project that was the basis for the work has been canceled," Atalay told Reuters.

Erdogan has said he would wait for the judiciary to rule, and any appeals process, before proceeding with Taksim, one of several large projects for Istanbul, including a huge airport, an enormous Mosque and a canal to ease Bosphorus traffic.

June's protests and riots began when police used water cannon and tear gas against a relatively small protest over the plans to redevelop Taksim and the adjacent Gezi Park. The heavy handed police action stirred unprecedented actions against Erdogan, accusing him of an increasingly authoritarian style.

Four people were killed and some 7,500 wounded in the police crackdown, according to the Turkish Medical Association. It largely ended when police cleared a protest camp on the square on June 15.

UNPRECEDENTED PROTESTS

The protests were unprecedented in Erdogan's rule, which began in 2002 with the election of his AK Party. He has pressed significant reforms in the economy and curtailed the power of a military that had toppled four governments in four decades.

Opponents argue that he has become authoritarian in his rule after three election victories and during the June unrest turned increasingly to the Islamist core of his AK Party faithful.

If the country's top administrative court subsequently rules in favor of the development, Erdogan has still pledged to hold a referendum in Istanbul on the government's plan.

A press adviser at city hall, which drafted the development plan, did not return phone calls seeking comment. Court officials also could not be reached.

"I expect the other side will definitely appeal this decision but in the meantime, they must abide by it and that means removing police from Taksim and allowing citizens to return to Gezi Park," Atalay told Reuters.

Gezi has been shut to the public since June 15 when police stormed the park and pushed out the protesters.

Taksim carries enormous symbolic value for many Turks of different political stripes.

It was the site of a 1977 May Day massacre that killed up to 40 leftists. For secular Turks, its development in the early days of the republic represent the nation's founding principles, while devout Muslims have long sought to build a mosque there.

Erdogan, whose ruling party traces its roots to a banned Islamist movement, has said that his effort to remake Taksim aims to return it to its original form. He also said he would erect a mosque at the Square and rebuild the Ataturk Cultural Centre, named after Turkey's secular-minded founder.

There are other lawsuits against aspects of Taksim's redevelopment. Atalay said this ruling takes precedence since it involves the master plan for the square.

The changes to Taksim include an underground tunnel network for traffic to pedestrianise the square and razing Gezi Park to build the replica Ottoman-era barracks that Erdogan originally said would be a mall, then a city museum.

(Editing by Ralph Boulton)

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