President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday blasted the LGBT movement as incompatible with Turkey’s values and compared student protesters to “terrorists” as a month of youth-driven rallies shook his rule.
Hundreds of people were arrested and many were hit with plastic bullets and pepper spray in clashes between pro-democracy protesters and police in Istanbul on Tuesday.
Helicopters hovered above rallies organised by students from the prestigious Boğaziçi University as police clamped down on the demonstration, detaining 228 people and provoking claims of heavy-handed tactics.
The protests, which have been going on for more than a month, have morphed from calls for democracy following the government appointment of new university rector Melih Bulu, to defending LGBTI+ rights and calling out police brutality.
Protests continued on Wednesday, with 51 still in detention.
Mr Erdoğan gave a live address to his party on Wednesday, likening the students protesting to terrorists.
“Are you students or terrorists who dare to raid the room of the rector?,” he said. “This country will not be a place where terrorists prevail. We will never allow this.”
He also stated there is no such thing as “the LGBT.”
This week, the governorship of Istanbul banned gatherings in Beşiktaş and Sarıyer, the districts Boğaziçi University spreads across, on the grounds of coronavirus, justifying the police presence at the university campus.
The protests have further spread to the capital Ankara, where about 60 people were detained on Tuesday and videos were shared online of students being beaten by police.
On Tuesday night, 159 people were detained at Boğaziçi University as nearly 200 students found themselves penned in with no escape, while up to six snipers were seen on buildings outside the university gates.
A third-year sociology student, Yaren Bozar described the police presence to The Telegraph as “an army”.
“They brought cars and buses, they were preparing to arrest all of the students who protest there, and they attacked us with plastic bullets,” Ms Bozar said.
“We were lucky we managed to escape, we ran from them really quickly, but other friends behind us were beat up, they have wounds on their arms, bodies, their heads, some of them were arrested.”
The protests have escalated since they began on January 2, calling for the resignation of Dr Bulu who was appointed without consulting university faculty or administration and whose publications have been accused of plagiarism.
Dr Bulu – who some of the students hold responsible for the escalation in violence – did not respond to a request for comment.
Students say the police brutality started following a solidarity art exhibition held at the university, showcasing works sent in from around the world.
One piece depicted the holy Islamic site Kaaba, overlayed with the image of a serpent – a symbol of evil in Anatolia – combined with the image of a woman and LGBT flags placed in the corners.
Sparking outcry from the religious authority in Turkey as well as the government, the Turkish Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu went so far as to call those detained following the exhibition “perverts”.
“4 LGBT perverts who committed the disrespect to the Kaaba-i Muazzama were detained at Boğaziçi University!” he wrote in a now censored Tweet. The Turkish Ministry of Interior was approached for comment but they did not respond.
Ms Bozar, 21, told The Telegraph that the LGBTI+ community is being targeted and used as a scapegoat.
“They are using really brutal stances to violate the LGBT rights and make this protest all about their sexual identities,” Ms Bozar said.
“We have a lot of identities in our university and they should be able to express themselves and protest freely. It’s not about identity, it’s about an undemocratic situation right now.”
Professor Zeynep Gambetti, who teaches political science at the university, sees this crackdown more as a response to declining support for the government in Turkey.
“I think the government is starting a new wave of repression in order to silence the opposition,” Prof Gambetti told The Telegraph.
While the main constituency of the ruling AK Party in Turkey is religious, Prof Gambetti says the party uses religion as a cover to mobilise masses against part of civil society.
“I seriously don’t think the main ideological struggle is about religion – it’s about power.”