ISTANBUL (AP) — The trial of 16 leading members of Turkish civil society, seen by critics as a momentous bid by the government to crack down on opposition voices and criminalize mass anti-government protests, moved toward a hasty conclusion Tuesday.
The defendants, among them jailed philanthropist Osman Kavala, are on trial for attempting or aiding in an attempt to overthrow the government in the Gezi Park protests in 2013.
Those began as a demonstration to protect a small park in central Istanbul from being redeveloped as an Ottoman-style shopping mall but grew into a wider protest movement across Turkey, challenging Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was the prime minister and is now Turkey’s president.
The trial was taking place Tuesday in a courthouse near the Silivri maximum security prison campus, on the outskirts of Istanbul. Rights groups, lawmakers and hundreds of supporters arrived to observe the trial. Many burst into applause when Kavala entered the courtroom.
The prosecutor is seeking a sentence of life in solitary confinement without parole for Kavala, architect Mucella Yapici and Yigit Aksakoglu, who works on early childhood development and spent 221 days in pretrial detention. They reject the accusation that they tried to overthrow the government and say the protests were an exercise of democratic rights.
Yapici, who is a member of Taksim Solidarity, a platform working for the area’s urban issues, has already been tried for her involvement in the protests on other charges and was acquitted in 2015.
Observers have interpreted the prosecutor’s final sentencing judgment, delivered earlier this month seeking harsh penalties, as a sign that the trial will be put on the fast track.
Sezgin Tanrikulu, an opposition lawmaker, told The Associated Press he believes the court could deliver a verdict soon in order to bypass a European Court of Human Rights ruling to immediately release Kavala.
“They are trying to reach a verdict without hearing the defense and without gathering evidence,” he said.
Defense lawyers say their witnesses have yet to be heard and that the evidence has not been adequately presented, but at the start of the sixth hearing Tuesday, the prosecutor asked that demands to extend the trial be rejected. The court agreed.
The prosecutor is also demanding 15 to 20 years in prison for six other defendants, among them filmmakers, a lawyer and an urban planner, for aiding an attempted overthrow. The remaining seven defendants, who are abroad, should be separately tried, the prosecutor said. All 16 are accused of “terror crimes.”
Kavala is the sole defendant still jailed, arrested four years after the protests and in pretrial detention for 840 days. In the December ruling, the Strasbourg-court said that Kavala’s right to liberty was violated by a lack of reasonable suspicion, and that the extended detention served “the ulterior purpose of reducing him to silence” with a “chilling effect on civil society.”
The 63-year-old is a businessperson and the founder of a nonprofit institution that focuses on cultural and artistic projects for peace and dialogue called Anadolu Kultur. Kavala has maintained that he took part in peaceful activities to defend the environment and the park, which is near his office, and rejects the accusation that he organized and financed the protests.
The prosecution argues the group acted under the directives of Kavala to organize and plan the protests, saying the events escalated through social media. “The goal was to ignite the fuse of violence through marginal groups and terror organizations, create chaos, and so that is what happened,” the prosecutor wrote. He cited phone calls between the defendants, civil society events that some attended abroad, meetings, a play and Twitter hashtags as evidence.
The 657-page indictment from March 2019 also alleges that billionaire U.S. philanthropist George Soros, who is at the heart of many conspiracy theories in Turkey and abroad, was active in the “Gezi insurrection” with links to Kavala, but he is not listed among the suspects. President Erdogan has called Kavala the “Red Soros,” saying he funded “terrorists” in the protests.
“The prosecution’s arguments have relied on conspiracy theories, not evidence,” said David Diaz-Jogeix of freedom of expression organization Article 19, echoing a major argument by the defense lawyers, who say the indictment lacks inculpatory evidence. “Along with numerous irregularities in the court proceedings, the defendants have not received a fair trial.”
The defense lawyers have questioned the independence of the court, amid accusations of legal misconduct. In the last hearing in January, dozens of lawyers walked out in protest after the committee of three judges refused to recuse itself. The lawyers’ demand for the recusal came after the judges heard testimony of a key witness twice, without the presence of the defense team, which they say was unlawful.
An estimated 3.6 million people joined the Gezi Park protests, according to government estimates, and thousands were injured. Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse mostly peaceful protesters and have been criticized for excessive force.
The Turkish Bar Association puts the number of killed in the unrest at 15, including a police officer, but the prosecutor’s indictment against the defendants says five were killed. The discrepancy stems from the inclusion of heart attacks and cerebral hemorrhages thought to be caused by pepper spray, as well as those killed in other protests during the same period.
“The millions who took to the streets to use their democratic rights are being judged,” Yapici, the architect on trial, said at a news conference last week.