Erdoğan targets Gezi protesters during inauguration of İstanbul’s Atatürk Cultural Center

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized the Gezi Park protests during the inauguration of İstanbul’s iconic Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM) in Taksim Square, saying the center had been “turned into a place for terrorist organizations’ show of strength” during the 2013 demonstrations, local media reported on Friday.

“We haven’t forgotten how that building was turned into a place for a show of strength for terrorist organizations during the Gezi protests. We overcame those problems and did what was necessary,” Erdoğan said on Friday, referring to the two-year-long construction work for the center.

The AKM was opened to the public in 1969 and closed in 2008. The center, which bears the name of the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and is located in Taksim Square, one of the most famous locations in İstanbul, served primarily as an opera house before its demolition started in 2018. Construction of a new complex started on Feb. 10, 2019.

The new center, which encompasses 96,000 square meters, consists of five blocks and has a 2,500-seat opera house along with a cinema, library, cafés and restaurants, at a cost of about TL 2 billion ($208 million), according to local media reports.

The cultural center reopened its doors to the public late Friday after Erdoğan formally inaugurated it on the 98th anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey on Oct. 29.

“This building is a place where a snapshot of [both] the old and the new Turkey can be most clearly seen,” Erdoğan said, adding that all art and cultural activities at the center will contribute to a “great and powerful Turkey.”

The protests in 2013 erupted over then-Prime Minister Erdoğan’s government’s plans to demolish Gezi Park in Taksim. The protests spread to other cities across the country and quickly turned into mass anti-government demonstrations that were violently suppressed by the government, leading to the death of 11 protesters due to the use of disproportionate force by the police.

More than 8,000 people were injured during the protests. Since then, the police in the area have remained vigilant, and anti-government demonstrations in Taksim Square are prohibited. Even smaller peaceful marches are quickly disbanded.

The Erzincan 2nd High Criminal Court earlier this week sentenced 15 people to a total of 93 years, 10 months in prison for taking part in the Gezi protests, on charges that include “violating the law on meetings and demonstrations” and “resisting the police and preventing them from doing their job.” The individual prison sentences ranged from two years, six months to six years, eight months.

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