ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish police detained 19 people and fired tear gas in central Istanbul on Sunday to disperse dozens of activists attempting to gather to mark the annual Gay Pride week after authorities banned their march.
A German lawmaker and a member of the European Parliament were also briefly detained while police chased activists into side streets and blocked them from gathering and reading out a statement, saying it was banned.
Organizers called off the annual Gay Pride march, carried out largely peacefully since 2003, after authorities did not allow the event to go ahead but deployed hundreds of riot police near the main Taksim square.
Volker Beck, a member of the German Bundestag and a veteran gay rights activist, was among those briefly detained. Two other German citizens were also detained.
“They did nothing wrong. They were put into a police car,” he told Reuters as police officers once again tried to force him into a taxi telling him he should hold his news conference in his own country.
Beck said Turks in Germany freely demonstrated in the streets of Berlin, Hamburg and other German cities for or against the German and Turkish governments.
“It is a fair and democratic right in Turkey as well as Germany and I cannot understand that such threatening of an MP can happen in front of the police,” he said.
The Istanbul governor’s office last week said the march had been banned out of concern for public order. Security in the city is already tight after a series of bombings in recent months blamed on Islamic State and Kurdish militants.
But an ultra-nationalist youth group had also threatened violence if the march went ahead, calling it immoral.
While homosexuality is not a crime in Turkey unlike many other Muslim countries, homophobia remains widespread. Critics say President Tayyip Erdogan and the Islamist-rooted AK Party he founded have shown little interest in expanding rights for minorities, gays and women, and are intolerant of dissent.
Historically the gay pride parade in Istanbul - a city seen as a relative safe haven by members of the gay community from elsewhere in the Middle East, including refugees from Syria and Iraq - has been a peaceful event.
But last year police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse participants, after organizers said they had been refused permission because it coincided with the holy month of Ramadan, as it does again this year.
Some foreign diplomats who had attended the previous years’ events have sent solidarity messages for the Gay Pride week via social media. The Swedish Consulate held a reception while the Norway delegation co-organized a boat trip.
John Bass, U.S. ambassador to Turkey, posted a picture on his Instagram account showing a rainbow flag flying in the garden of the U.S. embassy in Ankara marking the Gay Pride week.
“It reminds all of us that human rights are universal rights and belong to everyone, no matter who they love,” he wrote.
Additional reporting by Melih Aslan; Reporting by Nick Tattersall; Writing by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Digby Lidstone