Turkey may be fined by ECtHR for banning access to Taksim on May 1

Though the long-running debate between the government and the workers’ unions on permission to use Istanbul’s Taksim square for May Day celebrations has resurfaced, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has already ruled that Taksim square cannot be closed to peaceful demonstrations.

As a result, the government’s determined stance to ban massive rallies in Taksim square on May 1 might lead to Turkey being fined by the ECtHR if it refuses to comply with the ruling in the upcoming days.

The government’s insistence on not allowing peaceful celebrations of May Day to be held in Taksim square has brought great tension to the political agenda.

The heart of May Day celebrations has always been in Istanbul’s busiest square, Taksim, but it was closed to demonstrators following May Day 1977, also known as Bloody May Day, when 34 people were killed after unknown assailants opened fire on the crowd. since then, May Day in Turkey has always been a source of tension.

The government declared May 1, May Day, an official holiday in 2009, the Day of Labor and solidarity, and reopened Taksim square for celebrations, albeit under tight security, Taksim square then became the site of peaceful celebrations, aside from a few minor incidents that occurred in 2010 and 2012. But the site was closed once again in 2013 due to construction in the square, and Turkey has returned to the same debate about access to Taksim square for this year’s May 1 march.

While Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu has said that no mass gathering will be permitted in the square, stating, “Permission for May Day celebrations in Taksim is out of the question,” the labor unions are equally determined to hold a large rally in the square.

The governor has suggested Yenikapi square and other alternate locations for mass demonstrations, but Confederation of Revolutionary Workers’ unions (DIsK) head Kani Beko said the trade unions will gather in Taksim to commemorate the 34 people killed there in 1977.

“It is a political decision to ban workers from gathering in the area [Taksim]. … We want to hold a peaceful celebration,” Beko said. “The workers have made their decision. They say, ‘We will celebrate May 1 in Taksim.’ We need to respect this decision made by the workers,” he added.

Gov’t violates ECtHR ruling by closing Taksim to peaceful rallies

speaking to Today’s Zaman, Ibrahim KaboGlu, a professor of constitutional law at Marmara university, evaluated the discussion from the domestic perspective and that of international law and emphasized that a 2001 amendment to Article 34 of the Constitution dealing with the freedom of assembly eliminated the power of the civil authority to determine where such mass assemblies may take place.

“In a series of cases, Turkey was found guilty of violating the freedom of assembly, as well as the use of excessive force by security forces in their crackdown on demonstrators in ECtHR trials. The rulings said that, even though the rallies are against the law, security forces should not resort to violence against the protesters. In brief, using any kind of violence was banned under these rulings,” KaboGlu said.

Criticizing the government’s announcement that Taksim square will not be open for May 1 celebrations again this year, KaboGlu noted that the ECtHR had ruled that the square should be open for May 1 celebrations, but that the ruling could not be implemented immediately due to a redevelopment project in the square.

“When the ECtHR ruled on the case for the opening of Taksim to rallies in 2012, the government did not object to the decision, [which led to people] inferring that the government had accepted the ruling. Now, it is the government’s duty and responsibility to allow and provide [access for] celebrations on May 1,” KaboGlu said.

Republican People’s Party (CHP) Deputy Chairman sezgin Tanrikulu also pointed out the same ruling made by the ECtHR, recalling that when the Confederation of Public sector Trade unions (KEsK) and DIsK started an initiative to celebrate the Day of Labor and solidarity in Taksim square in 2008, the governorship of Istanbul banned the labor unions from holding rallies in the square.

“Following the banning of the initiative in 2008, the unions appealed to the top court to reverse the ban. In its decision, the court decided that Taksim square has a unique place in the public memory. The government’s attempts to block it failed and were destroyed by the ECtHR verdict, yet the recent ban is a reflection of the authoritarian tendencies of the government and of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoGan,” Tanrikulu said.

Emphasizing that ErdoGan’s stance on fundamental rights and liberties has polarized society for a long time, Tanrikulu also said: “Not recognizing people’s rights to hold peaceful rallies in Taksim square on May 1 is totally unlawful. Holding demonstrations in Taksim has a historical and cultural meaning for a large part of society.”

ECtHR decision is legally binding

KEsK Chairman Ismail Hakki Tombul also recalled the ECtHR ruling from 2012 that said people must be allowed to hold rallies in the square and that the verdict is legally binding on the government, when speaking with sunday’s Zaman.

“ErdoGan reacted harshly to the Constitutional Court lifting the ban on Twitter, saying that he has no respect for the court’s verdict on the issue [but acknowledged that he must comply]. Although ErdoGan may not respect the ECtHR verdict on holding rallies in Taksim square, either, he must observe it. By not abiding by the ruling of the ECtHR, the government and ErdoGan not only commit a legal offense, but violate the Constitution,” Tombul said.

Tombul announced that KEsK had appealed to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which reviews countries’ implementation of ECtHR verdicts, on the grounds that the AK Party government has rejected the court’s ruling allowing people to gather in Taksim square for peaceful demonstrations.

Commenting on the government’s oppressive and conflicting stance against labor unions and those who want to celebrate Labor Day in Taksim, the Contemporary Jurists’ Association (CHD) Ankara branch Chairman Murat Yilmaz pointed out that demonstrations and assemblies must take place in locations that have a historical or symbolic meaning for people.

He stressed that administrative officials have no right to determine a place for such mass demonstrations and rallies, Yilmaz said, “Trying to sequester people in an isolated location for these gatherings has no logic.”

“The international conventions clearly state that the signatory country is obliged to implement the conventions in a situation where domestic law contradicts international law. Article 90 of the Constitution says that international conventions are legally binding if a contradiction occurs in terms of domestic law,” Yilmaz added.

Given the government’s insistence on closing Taksim square to workers and to people in general, Yilmaz said he considers the decision an unfounded move that blocks people from exercising their constitutional right. When sunday’s Zaman asked whether the CHD has plans to appeal to the Constitutional Court to gain access to Taksim square, Yilmaz replied that the highest court, the ECtHR, has already ruled that people have the right to rally in Taksim, and that it is a decision that the Constitutional Court also has to obey, thus making it meaningless to submit an appeal to them. “Therefore, we have no plan to take the issue to the Constitutional Court at the moment,” Yilmaz said.

Another point that Yilmaz stressed is the possibility of the government being fined by the ECtHR if it refuses to implement the ruling on the use of Taksim square, adding: “However, we see that the government has no concerns about paying a fine for defying the verdict. They do not care about Turkey’s image being harmed by such fines. If the members of the civilian authority were obliged to pay these fines personally for causing such a punishment, then the government could not act in such an uncaring way about the fines.”

ErdoGan suggests people forget celebrating May 1 in Taksim

In response to the workers’ unions demands to celebrate Labor Day in Taksim square, ErdoGan has called on them to forget about it and reiterated his government’s earlier position that unions could hold rallies in Istanbul’s Yenikapi square, Maltepe square or Kartal if having a space was an issue.

Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu also continues to reject the demands of the workers’ unions. Despite the unions’ claim that Taksim square is an iconic site for the celebration, after talking with representatives from DIsK, Mutlu suggested they hold the rally in Yenikapi square, saying that the famous Taksim square would not be the best venue for such a large gathering. “Taksim square will not be open for celebrations on May 1, Labor Day, despite the ambitions of a group of unions,” he said.

In 1977, unknown assailants opened fire on the crowd from the Marmara Hotel. Then a police armed personnel carrier pushed the crowd toward Kazanci Hill, which was blocked by a truck, and many were crushed to death.

The shooters were never found and no effective investigation took place to find out why Kazanci Hill was blocked or why the personnel carrier directed people there, but Taksim square was closed to May Day celebrations from then on. The event is considered the beginning of the period of turmoil and chaos that took Turkey to the 1980 military coup. The military coup government then completely prohibited May Day celebrations.