Turkish police used tear gas to disperse the nation’s annual gay pride parade in Istanbul on Sunday, arresting 19 people and enforcing a ban on the event following a similar spectacle against a transgender pride assembly last week.
Reuters reports that this year’s Turkish Gay Pride march, typically held annually in June, did not receive government permits “out of concern for public order,” a concern authorities did not elaborate on. Reuters notes, however, that Istanbul has been the scene of numerous terrorist attacks in the past year, attributed to both the Islamic State and the Marxist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Marchers convened around the city anyway, many hanging rainbow flags from windows and organizing in small numbers on multiple street corners to make it more difficult for police to surround and shut down the march.
Police nonetheless arrested 19 of those assembled, including two German politicians who were in the city to lend solidarity to the Turkish LGBT community, increasingly silenced under the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The arrests occurred after police dispersed crowds by shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the congregated masses.
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Protesters explained to Agence France-Presse (AFP) that they had planned to organize in smaller clusters to avoid precisely such a scenario. “We’re protesting spread-out, because the police are everywhere and blocking everything,” rally attendee Gizem Seker said. Protesters were not allowed to read a statement against the government’s refusal to allow the march, reading in part, “We will always exist, shout out our existence, and always be proud of our existence.”
Last week, police attacked an assembly of pro-transgender rights activists that had convened in Istanbul, peacefully waving rainbow flags. Reports estimated over 300 police attacked the group of dozens of activists with water cannons.
The Istanbul Gay Pride parade was traditionally one of the largest and safest in the Muslim world, having been held there since 2003 without interruption until last year. In June 2015, authorities refused permits to LGBT activists to hold their annual parade citing the fact that the date of the march fell within the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. While the march also occurred during Ramadan this year, authorities did not claim this as a reason for not granting organizers permission to put on the marches.
Last year, parade-goers were caught more by surprise. “We thought this was going to be a ‘normal,’ peaceful pride walk, but the police welcomed us with tear gas,” one attendee told Vice News last year.
The government of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been accused of increasingly imposing Islamic morality on the nation, which has been for decades a bastion of secular values in the Muslim world. Many Turks have been arrested for criticizing or mocking Erdogan, with two cartoonists serving time in prison currently for depicting Erdogan as gay in an illustration. Islamist groups have also become more prominent; last year, Islamists flooded Ankara with posters calling for the execution of all gay people.
President Erdogan has previously accused the West of caring about LGBT rights more than Muslim refugees.