ISTANBUL (AP) – A court in Istanbul on Tuesday acquitted nine leading Turkish civil society activists of terrorism-related charges in relation to anti-government protests, including philanthropist Osman Kavala.
The trial of 16 leading activists was seen by critics as a momentous bid by the government to crack down on opposition voices and criminalize mass anti-government protests. The defendants were accused of organizing anti-government protests in an attempt to overthrow the government in 2013.
The court ruled that Kavala, the sole defendant still in jail, should be freed. The trial against seven other defendants, some of who escaped overseas, will continue.
The protests began 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 Turkey’s prime minister at the time and is now Turkey’s president.
The trial took 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 had been seeking a life sentence 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 rejected the accusation that they tried to overthrow the government and say the protests were simply an exercise of democratic rights.
Yapici, who is a member of Taksim Solidarity, a group working for the areaâ€™s urban issues, has already been tried for her involvement in the protests on other charges and was acquitted in 2015.
Defense lawyers say their witnesses have yet to be heard and that the evidence has not been adequately presented. The prosecutor asked that demands to hear the witnesses on Tuesday be rejected. The court agreed.
The prosecutor was 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.
Kavala was arrested four years after the protests and held in pretrial detention for 840 days. In the December ruling, the Strasbourg-court European Court of Human Rights said that Kavalaâ€™s right to liberty was violated by a lack of reasonable suspicion, and that his extended detention served â€œthe ulterior purpose of reducing him to silenceâ€ with a â€œchilling effect on civil society.â€
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 rejected the accusation that he organized and financed the protests.
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 prosecutorâ€™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.