Civil society figures deny accusations in Gezi protest trial

Updates with new statements of defendants

A Turkish court opened the trial on Monday of 16 leading civil society figures accused of trying to overthrow then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan by organising and financing anti-government protests in 2013, the Cumhuriyet newspaper reported.

The 2013 protests began as a small-scale sit-in against the redevelopment of Gezi Park in Istanbul, but snowballed into nationwide anti-government demonstrations. Erdoğan said the protests aimed at toppling his government.

Prominent businessman Osman Kavala, actor Mehmet Ali Alabora, dissident journalist Can Dündar and civil society activist Yiğit Aksakoğlu are among the defendants in the trial, in addition to other 12 civil society figures.

The trial is taking place on Monday and Tuesday in a prison complex on western Istanbul’s outskirts. The 657-page indictment says the defendants “attempted to overthrow the government,” and calls for life sentences without parole for the defendants.

The indictment also names another 746 people as injured parties in the nationwide protests, holding the defendants responsible for all the injuries and damage to property.

The trial, however, is viewed by many as politically motivated, and the indictment has been widely criticised. Freedom House director Nate Schenkkan called it "an embarrassment" in conversation with Ahval when it was published in March. On Monday, Mustafa Yeneroğlu, a deputy for the ruling Justice and Development Party, tweeted that he had found "no material evidence" in the indictment.

Several opposition deputies, international human rights activist and observers from the European Parliament attended the trial, besides several hundred supporters outside the courthouse, Cumhuriyet said.

Kavala, held in pre-trial detention since November 2017, denied all the charges against him and said he had no link him to any clandestine organisations aiming to topple the government. Kavala's arrest was internationally condemned. The European Union questioned whether the Turkish judiciary adhered to international standards after the indictment was announced in February.

“It is said that I am the organiser of Gezi incidents. The accusations against me are derogatory,” Kavala said. “The accusation for which I have been imprisoned for the past 20 months is based on a series of claims that have no factual basis and defy logic.”

The indictment also seeks to paint the protests as a foreign-directed conspiracy with links to the Arab Spring, which, ironically, the Turkish government supported.

Accusing American-Hungarian financier George Soros of being behind large nationwide anti-government protests, it says Soros masterminded civil unrest in Serbia, Georgia and some Baltic states, then directed the Arab Spring protests that began in late 2010, before moving on to Turkey.

Last year, Erdoğan said Kavala was the representative in Turkey of the "famous Hungarian Jew Soros" whom he accused of trying to "divide and tear up nations."

Kavala said in his defence that the indictment presented nothing to support those allegations. During regime shifts in both Tunisia and Egypt, local actors who had public support were the driving force of protests, not international actors, Kavala said. 

Aksakoğlu, jailed since last November, also refuted the charges. “I've never been on the side of transformation by violence. Civil society excludes violence as a method,” he said.

Following Aksakoğlu’s statement, Mücella Yapıcı, one of the executives of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects, denied all charges, Turkish news site Bianet reported.

At the time of the protests, Yapıcı was a member of the Taksim Solidarity group, an initiative that was founded mainly by architects and city planners to oppose the government’s plans to build a shopping mall on the site of Gezi Park.

"I deny all charges against myself and all my friends. Solidarity and protesting the crimes against the city is not a crime," Yapıcı said.

Another defendant, film producer Çiğdem Mater, said the indictment was prepared by prosecutors who were accused of membership with the Gülen movement – a clandestine religious group that Ankara blames for 2016 coup attempt.

"This indictment was prepared during 2013, 2014 and 2015, and hasn't been changed much yet. As the judges can guess, this is an indictment prepared by the actors of a fortunately failed coup attempt," Mater said in her defence.

Mater also denied all charges and said she was facing a life sentence for making a movie on the Gezi protest, something she had never done.

Ali Hakan Altınay, the founding director of the Open Society Foundation (OSF), the Turkey branch of the Open Society Institute linked to American-Hungarian financier George Soros in the indictment, was the last to give his testimony on Monday's court session.

The OSF ended its activities last year in November after Erdoğan accused Soros of supporting the Gezi protests in order to divide Turkey.

"All projects undertaken by Open Society Foundation is subject to control. The indictment does not present any evidence to the allegation that foundation grants supported Gezi protests," Altınay said. "There are no decisions signed by me that are related to the Gezi protests."

Altınay also said he was ashamed to be facing charges of plotting to overthrow the government. "I want my name to be exonerated as soon as possible," he said.

Monday's court session drew the public’s attention as social media users posted solidarity messages with the defendants. 

Human Rights Watch underscored Turkish authorities' failure to investigate most of the police who were accused of wrongdoing during the protests.

During the nation-wide protest, at least six people died in clashes with police, and the Turkish Medical Association says 10,000 were seriously hurt.

Erdoğan’s critics say the government is using courts to quash political dissent, and some observers say the trial of Gezi activists is having a chilling effect on civil society.

Amnesty International's Turkey Strategy and Research Manager Andrew Gardner last week said the trial lacked any evidence of criminal activity and the charges should be dropped.

“This trial is nothing more than an egregious attempt to silence some of Turkey’s most prominent civil society figures,” Gardner said, “Osman Kavala and Yiğit Aksakoğlu must be immediately released and the absurd charges against all 16 of them must be dropped.”

"I read the indictment about Osman Kavala etc. I could not find any material evidence on Kavala being 'the organiser, mastermind or financer of the Gezi incidents as an attempt to topple the government'," Yeneroğlu said on Twitter. "My hope is for a court decision that is convincing to the public."

© Ahval English