Turkish prosecutors seek 47,520 years in jail for Gezi Park protest suspects

Turkish prosecutors have demanded 16 suspects - actors, lawyers, activists and journalists - spend a total of 47,520 years in prison on charges of attempting to violently overthrow the government by organising the 2013 Gezi protests, the biggest demonstrations against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since he came to power in 2003.

Once seen as force for democracy driving Turkey towards reforms recommended by the European Union, Erdoğan has overseen a progressively tighter crackdown on all opponents, especially following the 2016 failed coup, and critics say he is steering the country away from its traditional allies in the West towards closer ties with Russia and Iran.

An Istanbul criminal court accepted the prosecutors’ 657-page indictment, which lists all the 2013 cabinet members among the plaintiffs, as well as an additional 746 plaintiffs from across the country who mostly claim their property was damaged as a result of the protests.

The Gezi Park protests started as a small sit-in against the proposed destruction of one of Istanbul’s few remaining green spaces to make way for a shopping mall, but mushroomed into nationwide mass protests after police waded in with batons and tear-gas to break up the demonstration. Eleven people were killed and more than 8,000 injured in the ensuing violence.

The indictment seeks to prove that, rather than being a reaction to the police crackdown and the result of frustration at Erdoğan’s increasingly Islamist and authoritarian rule, the Gezi protests were organised and orchestrated by the suspects in a plot to topple the government.

Turkish businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala is accused of being the chief conspirator, sponsoring sedition through his non-profit organisation Anadolu Kültür, set up to support peace and democracy through arts and culture, and his ties to the local branch of the Open Society Foundation, established by American-Hungarian investor George Soros. 

The other suspects form several clusters loosely linked to one another and are charged with promoting the protests that spread to nearly all corners of the country.

Film producer Çiğdem Mater Utku, businessman Yiğit Ali Ekmekçi and civil activist Mine Özerden form one cluster linked to Anadolu Kültür, while Gökçe Tüylüoğlu, the head of the Open Society Foundation in Turkey in 2013, and Ali Hakan Altınay, its former head, are another cluster. 

Husband and wife actors Mehmet Ali Alabora and Ayşe Pınar Alabora, as well as playwright Handan Meltem Arıkan emerge as another group. According to prosecutors, the three began preparations for the Gezi protests at a meeting in Cairo in 2011, then advanced the plot by staging a play about a fictitious revolt against a dictator. They then took part in orchestrating the Gezi protests via social media, the indictment said. 

Another cluster includes civil society activists Hanzade Hikmet Germiyanoğlu, Yiğit Aksakoğlu and İnanç Ekmekçi. Prosecutors say this group, after the Gezi protests, tried to overthrow the government by trying to establish an organisation that worked on forms of non-violent protest. 

Architect Ayşe Mücella Yapıcı, lawyer and city planner Tayfun Kahraman, and lawyer Can Atalay, were meanwhile members of Taksim Solidarity, an initiative that was founded mainly by architects and city planners to oppose the government’s plans to build a shopping mall modelled on the Ottoman military barracks that had previously stood on the site of Gezi Park. 

Finally, journalist Can Dündar forms a cluster by himself, and is accused of provoking the Gezi protests via social media posts.

Turkish businessman and rights activist Osman Kavala.

The indictment cites hundreds of people, mostly those working in Istanbul’s civil society sector, in tapped phone conversations, including journalists asking questions for news reports. It also points a finger at senior figures in Eczacıbaşı Holding and Boyner Holding, two of Turkey’s biggest businesses, accusing them of attempting to set up new media outlets with Kavala to promote unrest. It also says Boyner Holding provided mobile toilets to the Gezi protesters.

It is not clear though, while a large number of people are cited in the indictment, why some were charged and others not. That could indicate more charges may arise in the future and prove a deterrent to the others cited.

Through information obtained from the Financial Crimes Investigation Board, the indictment lists nearly all grant-providing international organisations active in Turkey, many people who have worked for Anadolu Kültür, and civil society organisations that have received grants from Open Society. Even people who received travel expenses to attend meetings are listed.

The indictment provides a fascinating insight into the conspiratorial mindset of Turkish state prosecutors, a profession packed with Erdoğan loyalists. It takes the reader on a meandering saga from demonstrations in Serbia in 2000, to the Arab spring protests of 2011, and links conspiracy theories about Soros and his alleged role in unrest across the world, to the urgent need for sandwiches and masks in Gezi Park for protesters exhausted by tear gas. 

There are pages of phone conversations between people working for the Open Society Foundation discussing when and how to write an open letter to the Turkish government to deny claims by a former board member, Can Paker, who implied in an interview that Soros supported the policies of Israel. 

There are discussions about a 15-minute documentary on the Gezi protests, which some of the suspects tried to promote at international film festivals, efforts to ensure a photo exhibition on Gezi in Brussels did not overlap with other Turkey-related events there, and talks about a possible campaign to ask the international community to ban sales of tear gas to Turkey.

The indictment says a Serbian organisation, Otpor, established in late 1990s to promote social mobilisation against President Slobodan Milošević, somehow inspired the Gezi protests. Otpor turned into an organisation working on types of peaceful protests after Milošević’s fall in 2000 and has organised training around the world, including in Turkey. But there is no evidence that any of the suspects participated in Otpor events inside Turkey. 

Otpor also concerned itself with the Arab spring, but the only concrete link between the suspects and the Serbian organisation was a meeting in Cairo, which Mehmet Ali Alabora attended. The indictment lists travel to Turkey by people linked to Otpor, including their stays in a luxury hotel in the southern province of Antalya, a place popular with tourists.

The indictment also refers to a book written by U.S. professor Gene Sharp in which he catalogued 198 different types of non-violent protest, which according to some, inspired the Arab spring revolts. Sharp’s list includes many known forms of protest, such as petitions, meetings, public speeches, banners, slogans, leaflets, drama and music – many actions protected by international conventions signed by Turkey, and by the Turkish constitution.

The indictment lists all types of activism seen during the Gezi Park protests and tries to link them to Otpor’s activism in Serbia, to Sharp’s book, and to the Arab spring. In one example, prosecutors said Otpor activists distributed cakes in Serbian police stations in 1999, comparing that to attempts by activists to give flowers to police in Gezi Park in 2013.

The prosecutors said the group of 16 suspects melded legal and illegal organisations together, analysed the social structure in Turkey and guided society by instilling false perceptions.

They said the suspects had different political opinions and capacities, but managed to come together in a complex organisation with a unique structure never before seen in Turkey. 

Prosecutors also said the organisation resembled the Gülen movement, a secretive Islamist group formerly allied to Erdoğan that split with the ruling party and is accused of carrying out the 2016 attempted coup.

The trial is set to begin at a maximum security prison in Silivri, west of Istanbul, on June 24.