ISTANBUL (AP) — A senior European Union official on Friday criticized Turkish police's harsh crackdown on protesters in the last week, telling an audience that included the prime minister that abusers should be punished and that Turkey should aspire to the highest standards of democracy.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been openly frustrated by the slow pace of his country's talks to join the 27-nation bloc and sounded irritated after the comments at a conference aimed at furthering Turkey's decades-long ambition.
Turkey's efforts have been hampered by a dispute over EU-member Cyprus, Turkey's previous human rights problems and some political resistance among EU members.
The protests sweeping the country could further set back the bid by the country held up as a democratic model for the region. In a week of demonstrations across the country, three people have been killed — two protesters and a policeman — and thousands wounded or affected by tear gas fired by police.
The protests were triggered by a heavy-handed crackdown by police on a peaceful sit-in by a group opposed to the demolition of park in central Istanbul and have grown into wider disturbances by tens of thousands voicing discontent with Erdogan's perceived autocratic ways.
Turkey's government has apologized for the excessive use of force by police against some of the protesters and promised an investigation. But Erdogan has largely remained combative, insisting that democracy happens only at the ballot box.
Putting pressure on Erdogan, Stefan Fule, the EU enlargement commissioner, said people in democratic societies have the right to hold peaceful demonstrations and that police excesses had "no place" in democracies.
"What is important now, is not only to launch a swift and transparent investigation but also to bring those responsible to account," Fule said during the conference in Istanbul, held near Taksim Square, where the protests began a week ago and then spread to 72 cities.
"The duty of all of us, European Union members as much as those countries that wish to become one, is to aspire to the highest possible democratic standards and practices," Fule said.
"These include the freedom to express one's opinion, the freedom to assemble peacefully and freedom of media to report on what is happening as it is happening," Fule said. Turkish media was widely criticized for not covering the initial days of the protests. Media in Turkey has been pressured into self-censorship and dozens of journalists have been jailed.
Protesters have occupied Gezi Park for the past week to protect it from a government urban redevelopment plan. They have vowed to stay and prevent the construction project from going ahead and cutting down trees.
Erdogan says his government will press ahead with the redevelopment project, but appears to have backed away from initial plans to build a shopping mall. He has called the protests illegal attempts to challenge his governments, said "terrorists" were involved and drew the ire of protesters for calling them "looters."
He told thousands of his supporters early Friday that the protests must immediately end. Supporters shouted slogans threatening to go to Taksim "to smash" the protesters there.
Analysts said the government's harsh response to the protesters is jeopardizing the "momentum" of Turkey's EU bid.
"If the (protests) cannot be solved through dialogue then it will harm this momentum," said Cengiz Akar, a professor of international relations at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University. "There is this risk."
Demonstrations appeared calmer so far Friday, but they often pick up in the evening.
Large crowds gathered in central Ankara late on Thursday, holding a festive protest in the absence of riot police. On Friday, authorities negotiated with protesters who had set up tents in the city's main Kugulu Park for their removal, but the group remained, reading books, dancing or playing musical instruments.
"Peaceful demonstrations constitute a legitimate way for these groups to express their views in a democratic society. Excessive use of force by police against these demonstrations has no place in such a democracy," Fule said.
Speaking shortly after Fule, Erdogan retorted that Turkey remained committed to joining the EU, but criticized the European bloc for the lack of progress in membership talks, saying support for the country's accession in Turkey has plummeted to 30 percent.
"Why is our membership advancing at such a slow pace? The people have a right to know!" Erdogan said. "We are determined to advance on the path of EU, but it is not possible for Turkey to continue with one-sided efforts."
He said the EU also has a record of human rights problems, noting discrimination against some ethnic groups, including Roma, also known as Gypsies.
In comments to journalists who had traveled with him to North Africa, Erdogan called the week-long protests undemocratic and an attempt by a minority group to "dominate" his majority supporters.
Ezgi Akin in Ankara contributed.