As demonstrations in Turkey enter a fifth day, the country’s deputy prime minister has apologised for “excessive violence” against protesters trying to save a park in Istanbul.
It is unclear whether the remarks made on Tuesday by Bulent Arnic, who is standing in for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan while he is out of the country, were towing an official government line.
He admitted the state had acted harshly when it sent in police to clear environmentalists participating in a sit-in protest to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park last week.
“At the beginning of the protests, the excessive violence used against people concerned about the environment was wrong. It was unfair and I apologise to those citizens,” he said.
“The government has learnt its lesson from what happened. We do not have the right and cannot afford to ignore people. Democracies cannot exist without opposition.”
However, he refused to reconcile with those who joined the later anti-government demonstrations, in which two people died.
“The ones who caused the destruction to the public property and the ones who are trying to restrict people’s freedoms, we do not need to apologise,” he said.
Arinc was speaking after a meeting with President Abdullah Gul who, contrary to Erdogan, has praised the mostly peaceful protesters as expressing their democratic rights.
Thousands of people have been injured in four days of demonstrations, as police attempted to contain protesters with teargas, water cannons and baton charges.
Turkey’s Human Rights Foundation claimed more than 1,000 protesters were subjected “to ill-treatment and torture” by police.
Despite facing the biggest challenge to his rule since he came to office in 2002, Erdogan left Turkey earlier on Monday on an official visit to Morocco, where he insisted the situation in his country was “calming down”.
He earlier rejected talk of a “Turkish Spring” uprising by Turks who accuse him of trying to impose religious reforms on the secular state, and dismissed the protesters as “vandals”, stressing that he was democratically elected.
Erdogan has blamed the protests on “extremists”, “dissidents” and the main opposition Republican People’s Party.