Gezi Park trial: Turkey acquits all defendants over 2013 protests

The trial was widely criticised as a crackdown on opposition voices, with philanthropist Osman Kavala and other civil society figures now free of a possible sentence of life in solitary confinement

Turkish soldiers stand outside the court in a prison complex where the trial of prominent philanthropist Osman Kavala and 15 others started, while people arrive, in Silivri, outside Istanbul, Monday, June 24, 2019. The defendants went on trial in Turkey Monday accused of organizing anti-government protests in 2013, with them and rights groups calling the charges baseless and aimed at silencing civil society activities.Protests began in 2013 to protect the small Gezi Park in central Istanbul from development but quickly transformed into wider anti-government demonstrations across Turkey. (Ibrahim Mase/DHA via AP)
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Sixteen civil society figures, among them jailed Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala, were found innocent in court on Tuesday in a case that was widely criticised as a crackdown on opposition voices.

The defendants were on trial for attempting or aiding in an attempt to overthrow the government with the 2013 Gezi Park protests, which began as a demonstration to protect the small park in central Istanbul from being redeveloped as an Ottoman-style shopping mall. The demonstrations grew into a wider protest movement across Turkey, challenging then-Prime Minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The prosecutor sought a sentence of life in solitary confinement without parole for Mr Kavala, architect Mucella Yapici and Yigit Aksakoglu, who works on early childhood development and spent 221 days in pretrial detention. They rejected the accusation that they tried to overthrow the government and say the protests were an exercise of democratic rights.

Ms Yapici, who is a member of Taksim Solidarity, a platform working for the area’s urban issues, has already been tried over her involvement in the protests on other charges and was acquitted in 2015.

The court had not complied with a European Court of Human Rights order to immediately release Mr Kavala from detention. He was the sole jailed accused, arrested four years after the protests, and was in pretrial detention for 840 days. In the December ruling, the Strasbourg-court said that Mr 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 non-profit institution that focuses on cultural and artistic projects for peace and dialogue called Anadolu Kultur, and has worked with many civil society organisations. Mr 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 organised and financed the protests.