Gezi trial verdict will be ‘funeral of civil society in Turkey,’ says defendant

The next hearing for the Gezi trial, when an Istanbul court is expected to deliver a verdict, will be “a funeral of civil society in Turkey,” civil society activist and defendant in the case, Yiğit Aksakoğlu, told New York Times in an interview.

As Tuesday’s hearing draws near, many in Turkey are worried Aksakoğlu, who spent seven months in pre-trial detention before his release last year, and the 15 other defendants in the case will be handed harsh sentences. 

“No one will be willing to raise even a tiny voice,” if that turns out to be the case, Aksakoğlu said. 

The prosecutor of the case is seeking life sentences without parole for Aksakoğlu, who works for a Netherlands-based children’s charity, architect and activist Mücella Yapıcı, and Osman Kavala, the Turkish philanthropist and businessman who has already spent three years in pre-trial detention.  

The defendants face a total of 47,520 years in prison among them on charges of attempting to violently overthrow the government by organising the 2013 Gezi Park protests, which started as a small sit-in against plans to demolish one of the last green spaces in central Istanbul but quickly evolved into the biggest anti-government protests in Turkey’s history when protesters were met with disproportionate police brutality.

Hundreds of thousands of people participated in the weeks-long protests that took over Taksim Square, the heart of Istanbul, with an estimated 4 million people participating in nation-wide demonstrations.

“This was the first time I saw a social movement so of course I was there, as a peaceful observer,” Aksakoğlu, who lived near the epicentre of the protests and watched them keenly said.

When the police came to take him into custody in a dawn raid in November 2018, Aksakoğlu was surprised. “I was picked accidentally,” he said. “And now they are unable to unpick me.”

Aksakoğlu insisted that the charges were baseless throughout the trial, and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights agrees.  

Western countries “want to see an improvement in (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan’s record on human rights and the rule of law,” the New York Times said.

The Gezi trial could point to a “conflict among cliques within the state,” and be a tool for a “radical rupture” between Turkey and Europe, Turkish academic and Osman Kavala’s wife Ayşe Buğra said in a rare interview on Friday.

Aksakoğlu, on the other hand, attended one workshop with fellow civil society activists after the protests to reflect on the events, and then returned to his normal work.

As the Turkey representative of the Dutch NGO Bernard van Leer Foundation since 2014, Aksakoğlu had been designing programs to improve child development in disadvantaged urban communities. 

His next project is to design playgrounds for young children in cooperation with the Istanbul Municipality and its popular opposition mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, but with more than two decades of experience in social development under his belt, Aksakoğlu said his work is “not necessarily related to a political party or against a political party.”

The government ruined the Gezi defendants’ lives, Aksakoğlu said, treating them “like small change in their pockets.” 

The trial process was “truly strange,” and continued as if the defendants never said anything, Buğra said, echoing Aksakoğlu’s pessimism. According to Buğra, the prosecution in the case ignored their own witnesses’ testimony in favour of the defendants.