International organisations call on Turkey to drop charges in Gezi trial

Nine international NGOs for human rights, democracy and press freedom have released a statement ahead of the fourth hearing of the controversial Gezi trial on December 24, urging Turkish authorities to drop charges against all defendants and immediately release from prison Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala.

“The continuation of this prosecution not only would violate the human rights of the defendants, but also would cause severe harm to Turkey’s civil society and the standing of the country’s judiciary,” the statement said.

The nine signatories are Amnesty International, EuroMed Rights, Freedom House, The Freedom Initiative, Human Rights First, PEN America, Project on Middle East Democracy, Reporters Without Borders, and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.

The Gezi Park protests of 2013 had started as a small, peaceful gathering of environmental activists protesting the demolition of one of the last green spaces in central Istanbul, but transformed into the biggest anti-government protest in Turkey’s history after activists faced disproportionate levels of police brutality. 

Hundreds of thousands of people participated in the protests throughout the country, and over ten people lost their lives in the first two weeks due to direct police intervention with tear gas and rubber bullets, or indirectly through medical conditions triggered by excessive use of tear gas.

Sixteen people including activists, architects, journalists, filmmakers and human rights defenders are facing trial on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government by organising the mass protests. 

Osman Kavala is the only defendant who remains in pre-trial detention, after activist Yiğit Aksakoğlu was released in June.

“This high-profile trial is an example of the government’s punishment of dissent and is part of a broader crackdown on civil society,” the joint statement said.

Turkish authorities seek to portray peaceful protests as an illegal enterprise, thereby threatening the rights to freedom of assembly and expression, the statement continued.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on December 10 ruled unanimously that Turkey had infringed on the right to liberty and security of Kavala, who has been in solitary confinement since November 2017.   

Turkey has not complied with the ECHR’s ruling for Kavala’s immediate release, despite the binding nature of the court’s rulings.

The trial, deemed “politically motivated and legally baseless” by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, represents a serious threat to all human rights defenders in Turkey, the statement said.

“The 657-page indictment fails to provide any credible evidence of criminal activity or intent by the defendants to overthrow the government,” it added, calling the trial “emblematic of the Turkish government’s systematic persecution of civil society and human rights defenders.”

The Gezi trial has contributed to the creation of a climate of fear in Turkey, “against the backdrop of declining independence of the judiciary,” the statement said.