Sixteen civil society figures have made their defense against an indictment in which they are accused of trying to overthrow the government of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan through the nation-wide Gezi protests in 2013, local media reported on Monday.
Prominent Turkish businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala was among the 16 defendants on the trial.
He on Monday stood before the judge on the 601st day of his arrest as part of the Gezi trial.
The case started against a backdrop of concerns about increasing authoritarianism in a country where tens of thousands have been arrested as part of a crackdown following an attempted military coup targeting Erdogan in 2016, Reuters said.
In the summer of 2013, the Gezi demonstrations began with a small group of people as a protest against the urban development plan for Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul, a city with very limited green space.
The protests quickly spread across the country with protesters besieging a number of government buildings.
At the time Erdogan argued that the protests were not environmentally motivated, claiming that they aimed to topple his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.
The defendants deny the charges against them.
Kavala launched his defense as the first hearing of the Gezi Park trial began at the Istanbul 30th Heavy Penal Court in Silivri, a town west of Istanbul and the site of Turkey’s largest prison, where he has been held on remand since 2017.
The businessman is blamed for spreading the protests through Anadolu Kultur, an organization of his that promotes culture and human rights.
“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,” Kavala said on Monday.
Stating the claim in the indictment that he is behind the Gezi protests, Kavala added: “The allegations brought against me are dishonorable. In no period of my life have I sought government change by means other than democratic elections.”
He argued that there is no evidence in the indictment suggesting a link between him and a secret structure, a community or organization.
“On what evidence have I been under arrest for all this time?” Kavala asked.
“I have attended the negotiations with government figures with the aim of soothing the protests, but I’m accused of trying to overthrow the government nevertheless,” he explained.
Underlining that he is one of the hundreds of thousands of people in Gezi Park who only attended the peaceful protests at the time, Kavala demanded his release at the end of his defense.
A number of lawyers and supporters of the defendants, as well as MP’s from the opposition parties, clapped and shouted as the businessman was led out of the room after the morning session. Riot police stood outside of the courtroom.
The indictment against the 16 defendants, who are accused of attempting to overthrow the government and financing the protests among other charges, calls for life sentences without parole.
The indictment also includes names of 746 people as injured parties in the nationwide protests and it holds the defendants responsible for all injuries and damage to property.
Yigit Aksakoglu, another defendant who was jailed pending trial last November, held forth that there are no crimes in the 657-page indictment against them.
He defined the indictment as “a method of criminalizing civil society in Turkey.”
“This case is not just about me or Gezi, it is about the wall that is put up between the law and the citizens. Your decision regarding the case will not be able to destroy that wall, it will only add or reduce a few of the stones,” Aksakoglu highlighted.
Saying that there’s no evidence of him participating the Gezi protests in the indictment, he added: “I didn’t even spend one night at the Gezi [Park.] If I knew that I would spend 220 days in prison for it, I would have at least spent a night there.”
“If all indictments are like this, pity our legal system. If just our indictment is like this, pity us,” Aksakoglu further said during his plea.
Erdogan, who is now Turkey’s powerful executive president after constitutional changes, as well as his cabinet of the time are all plaintiffs in the Gezi Park case.
Mucella Yapici, who was acquitted in a 2015 case, also related to the Gezi protests and who is a defendant in the current trial, explained that she had read the same defense she read during the previous trial.
“If a penal case is to be opened against me in five years time for the same reasons, I’ll read this again. If I write something new, that would mean I accept this indictment that is not based on facts,” she indicated.
Yapici, the Secretary of the Chamber of Architects İstanbul Branch’s Advisory Board on Environmental Impact Assessment, advocated that peaceful demonstrations are a right.
“What we all did was to come together around an idea and stand in solidarity. It is not a crime to make a call to the government to resign,” she repeated.
“Police violence and ruling political power’s provocative speeches served as a catalyzer [during the protests]. Young people died, some people lost their eyes. The real crime here is to prevent the right to demonstrate through severe police intervention. The government should have punished those who killed our children, instead of us,” Yapici argued.
While the European Union claimed that prosecutors were creating a climate of fear in Turkey by demanding life sentences, the US State Department has stated that Washington is gravely concerned.
Barbel Kofler, German Commissioner for Human Rights, and French Ambassador for Human Rights Francois Croquette described the start of trial as a “dark day” for Turkish civil society in a joint statement on Monday.
“A strong Turkey needs more, and not less, voices of his calibre. It does not need the intimidation and criminalization of critical thinkers, but rather the courage to engage in social dialogue,” they held forth.
Erdogan labels Gezi protesters along those accused of launching the attempted coup in 2016 as terrorists.
More than 77,000 people have been jailed in a crackdown, which is regarded by the Erdogan government as a necessary response to security threats.