Turkey acquits nine human rights defenders in Gezi Park protest trial

(Updates with new detention warrant for Kavala ) 

A Turkish court acquitted nine top civil society activists, including philanthropist Osman Kavala, of terrorism charges linked to the Gezi Park protests of 2013.

Human rights groups and the European Union had labelled the case as an attempt by the government to crack down on its critics and criminalise anti-government demonstrations. The defendants were accused of organising the protest in Istanbul, which spread across the country, to overthrow the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The court at maximum security Silivri jail, near Istanbul, ruled that Kavala, the only defendant still in jail, should be freed. A trial against seven others, some of whom have escaped abroad, will continue.

Hours after the court ruling, the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office started the legal process for the appeal of the Gezi verdict, Sabah newspaper reported. Prosecutors with the office have submitted an application for the appeal of Tuesday’s ruling, the newspaper said.

The Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office in a another move later on Tuesday issued a detention warrant for Kavala in connection with an investigation into 2016 coup attempt, T24 news site reported.

The detention order concerns another case launched against Kavala by the Istanbul prosecutors in connection with the failed putsch of July 15, 2016, for which Kavala is accused of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order”.

The prosecution had requested that the judge reject an extension of the hearings and find the defendants guilty. Defence lawyers had called for more time to hear additional witnesses and statements, saying the legal process was being cut short.  

The demonstrations at Gezi Park in central Istanbul grew into a nationwide protest movement against the increasing authoritarianism of Erdoğan's government. Police used batons and tear gas to disperse the protests, in which 11 people died, and hundreds more were injured and arrested.

The prosecution was seeking life in solitary confinement without parole for 63-year-old Kavala, architect Mücella Yapıcı and Yiğit Aksakoğlu, who works on early childhood development. The accused insist the protests were an exercise of democratic rights.

Speaking ahead of the trial, Milena Buyum, Amnesty International's Turkey campaigner, said its outcome would define whether human rights had any part left in the Turkish justice system.

"It's very pleasing to see everyone released in the Gezi Park trial, a decision that will refresh confidence in the judiciary," said Ekrem Imamoğlu, the opposition mayor of Istanbul.

Prosecutors had also demanded 15 to 20 years in jail for six more of the defendants, who included a lawyer, filmmakers, civil society professionals and an urban planner.

Adding to pessimism about the impending verdict, the Turkish court had failed to implement a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, which demanded Kavala’s immediate release from pre-trial detention. He had been in jail for more than two years. The ECHR said Kavala’s right to liberty had been violated due to lack of reasonable suspicion and that his detention had “a chilling effect on civil society”.

Turkey is required to strengthen its democracy and guarantee the right to peaceful protest as part of conditions for successfully completing membership talks with the EU. But democratic back sliding, particularly since a failed military coup in 2016 and the introduction of a full presidential system of government in 2018, has led Brussels to freeze the negotiations.

Sergey Lagodinsky, the chair of the Turkey delegation of the European Parliament, said the acquittals were a great relief for those who followed the trial and the Turkish judiciary should take a similar path in the cases of other politically accused or imprisoned Turks, including ten human rights defenders of the Büyükada case.

"At the same time, my thoughts are with many other politically accused or imprisoned citizens. Tomorrow, we will closely monitor the trial on the "Buyukada 10" group and I hope that all of the accused human-rights defenders will be acquitted as well. I urge the Turkish authorities and judiciary to get back on track with rule of law and the orderly judicial procedures. All we want is that rights of citizens are being respected, so that Turkey becomes part of the European space for rights and values," Logadinsky said.

The U.S. Embassy in Ankara welcomed the court's decision in the Gezi trial. 

“We have followed the trial of Osman Kavala and other civil society activists closely, and welcome today’s court decision to acquit and release the defendants,'' the embassy said on its official Twitter account.

The Council of Europe released a statement on Tuesday’s ruling.

“We welcome today’s ruling from the court in Istanbul ordering Osman Kavala to be released, in line with last December’s Chamber judgment from the European Court of Human Rights,’’ the Secretary General of the Council, Marija Pejčinović Burić, said.

“Free speech, the right to organise non-violent protests and the right to liberty are basic human rights in all Council of Europe member states,”  Burić added.