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Lawyers rail at police response to Turkey protests

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I am hopeful that we will surmount this through democratic maturity. If they have objections, we need to hear them, enter into a dialogue. It is our duty to lend them an ear. – Abdullah Gul

ANKARA, Turkey — Thousands of black-robed Turkish lawyers stormed out of their courthouses Wednesday, shouting about the alleged rough treatment of their colleagues by police amid the country's biggest anti-government protests in years.

The rallies by clapping, chanting jurists added a new twist to the nearly two weeks of protests that started in Istanbul and spread to dozens of other Turkish cities. The protests have shaped up as the biggest test yet in the 10-year rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamic-rooted government.

The embattled premier hosted talks with a small group of activists Wednesday afternoon in a bid to end the standoff, though critics in the streets said the 11-person delegation wasn't representative of the protesters — and insisted it wouldn't end the showdown.

Meanwhile, police and protesters retrenched after fierce overnight clashes in Istanbul's Taksim Square. The protesters say the prime minister is becoming increasingly authoritarian and is trying to force his deep religious views on all Turks, a charge that Erdogan and his allies strongly deny.

In Ankara and Istanbul, thousands of lawyers railed against the alleged rough treatment of dozens of their colleagues, who police briefly detained in Istanbul on the sidelines of Tuesday's unrest.

Sema Aksoy, the deputy head of the Ankara lawyer's association, said the lawyers were handcuffed and pulled over the ground. She called the police action an affront to Turkey's judicial system.

"Lawyers can't be dragged on the ground!" the demonstrating lawyers shouted in rhythm as they marched out of an Istanbul courthouse. Riot police stood off to the side, shields at the ready.

Turkey's Human Rights Foundation said Istanbul prosecutors had launched an investigation into allegations of excessive use of police force during the protests.

The foundation said 620 people, including a 1-year-old baby, were injured during the police crackdown early Wednesday. Police detained around 70 people during the incidents. Prior to this, activists reported that 5,000 people had been injured or seriously affected by the tear gas and four people have died in the protests.

The government, meanwhile, pressed ahead with uncertain efforts to defuse the protests.

President Abdullah Gul, seen by many as a more moderate voice than Erdogan, said the government couldn't tolerate more of the unrest that has disrupted daily life in Istanbul and beyond. He promised, however, that authorities would listen to protesters' grievances.

"I am hopeful that we will surmount this through democratic maturity," Gul told reporters. "If they have objections, we need to hear them, enter into a dialogue. It is our duty to lend them an ear."

The protests erupted May 31 after a violent police crackdown on a peaceful sit-in by activists objecting to a development project replacing Gezi Park with a replica Ottoman-era barracks. They then spread to 78 cities across the country and have attracted tens of thousands of people nearly every night.

Erdogan hosted the 11 activists — including academics, students and artists — in his offices at his Justice and Development Party in Ankara. Some leaders of civil society groups, including Greenpeace, had said they would not participate because of an "environment of violence" in the country.

The activist group Taksim Solidarity, which includes academics and architects who oppose the development plan, said its members hadn't been invited to the meeting with Erdogan and predicted it would yield no results.

"As police violence continues mercilessly ... these meetings will in no way lead to a solution," the group said in a statement. It also reiterated the group's demands, saying Gezi should remain a public park, senior officials behind the police excesses should be fired and all detained protesters should be released.

"We are still here and our demands haven't changed," group member Ongun Yucel said at the park. "People who are in the meeting are not representative of Taksim Solidarity. They are people who have nothing to do with what is going on here."

After Tuesday's violence, traffic returned to Taksim Square with taxis, trucks and pedestrians back on the streets. At one point, some police were seen kicking a soccer ball on the square. Riot police stood to the side, near a new barricade of wrecked cars and construction material that activists put up to impede their ability to fire tear gas on the park.

Hundreds of protesters remained camped out in Gezi Park, clearing up after a night of trying to fend off tear gas. An early morning storm blew down tents and soaked bedding. Donations of food and supplies including tents, sleeping bags and toilet paper continued to arrive.

On Tuesday, riot police firing water cannons and tear gas clashed all day and night with pockets of protesters throwing stones and setting off fireworks. The pitched battles didn't simmer down until just before dawn.

Erdogan has insisted the protests and occupations, which he says are hurting Turkey's image and economy, must end immediately and are being organized by extremists and terrorists.

The protests are drawing expressions of concern from abroad.

Germany's government was "following the news from Turkey with great preoccupation, especially the images of yesterday's police action," Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said Wednesday. "Now de-escalation is needed. Only an open dialogue can contribute to easing the situation."


Elena Becatoros in Istanbul, Juergen Baetz in Berlin, and Ezgi Akin in Ankara contributed.