The first hearing against 16 people accused of “attempt to overthrow the government” through the 2013 Gezi protests was held over two days

An Istanbul court ruled on 25 June 2019 to keep prominent businessperson and Anadolu Kültür association’s chairman Osman Kavala behind bars while releasing civil society activist Yiğit Aksakoğlu pending trial in the first hearing of a high-profile trial where 16 people are accused of stirring an uprising to overthrow the government. 

Both Kavala and Aksakoğlu are accused of funding the mass protests in 2013, which were triggered by the opposition of local activists to a controversial construction inside Gezi Park in Istanbul’s central Taksim area and went nationwide after the police’s violent crackdown on protesters. Members of the local Taksim Solidarity Platform, which includes representatives from chambers of architects and city planners, are also among the other 14 defendants. 

Only Kavala and Aksakoğlu were jailed in the wake of the first hearing of the trial, dubbed as the “Gezi trial,” overseen over two days by the 30th High Criminal Court of Istanbul. All 16 defendants face up to aggravated life imprisonment for “attempting to overthrow the government.” 

The hearing, held under strict security measures at the large courthouse near the Silivri Prison in the outskirts of Istanbul, was followed by P24 and many international NGOs. 

Kavala: Continued arrest ‘grave violation of law’

Appearing in front of a court for the first time in 20 months on 24 June, Kavala rejected all accusations of planning and financing the protests in order to overthrow the government. “This sort of funding could not have been made without leaving any trace,” Kavala said. He said the indictment contained no concrete evidence whatsoever that could link him to a “planned uprising against to government.” “The accusation for which I have been arrested for 20 months is based on a series of absurd allegations and opinions lacking evidence to support them,” he said. 

Referring to a series of tapped phone conversations included in the indictment, Kavala pointed out that in none of them he is heard giving orders for the organization of public demonstrations. “The prosecutor has decided that I was guilty without even feeling the necessity of interrogating me before preparing the fictitious indictment. All tapped conversations on Gezi date from after the protests begun,” Kavala said. “To take this indictment seriously, it should contain some concrete evidence.”

Kavala also noted that a Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK) on 18 January 2018 found no transfer of funds from the Anadolu Kültür association’s account to individuals linked with the Gezi protests. The association chaired by Kavala has been one of the leading civil society actors for years, especially regarding multicultural art events in Istanbul. 

Kavala said keeping him behind bars on the grounds that there were “no change regarding the evidences in his case” despite MASAK’s report was a “grave violation of the law” and demanded his release.

Aksakoğlu: I have never defended violence

Yiğit Aksakoğlu, who made his defense statements after Kavala on 24 June, also denied any involvement with the Gezi protests. “In the indictment, my name is not mentioned at any stage before, during and after the Gezi events,” Aksakoğlu said. “Neither the indictment nor the tapes show any evidence of my involvement with the Taksim Solidarity Platform, or its members. I have no relationship with Anadolu Kültür.”

Aksakoğlu, an NGO manager who has been jailed pending trial for more than 7.5 months, stressed being an expert on civil society and social development. “I have never defended violence or any change that would result from violence. I have never defended a change that would take place outside of a democratic election process,” Aksakoğlu said. “Quite to the contrary, I have defended change resulting from dialogue between different stakeholders and collaboration with government institutions to foment social change within a democratic system. The accusations in the indictment are baseless and at odds with my beliefs and activities.”

Aksakoğlu said the wiretapping included in the indictment as a proof that Gezi events have been planned since 2011, only begins after the evacuation of the park. “In all the tapped conversations involving me there isn’t the slightest insult, let alone (call to) violence.”

Mücella Yapıcı comes out against double jeopardy

Apart from Kavala and Aksakoğlu, seven other defendants were heard over the two days of the hearing. Mücella Yapıcı, a vocal architect and spokesperson of the Taksim Solidarity Platform which represented the protesters in Gezi Park in 2013, expressed her outcry over double jeopardy. Referring to another trial against activists involved with associations who opposed against Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s controversial construction park in Taksim Square launched, Yapıcı said she and other people had already been acquitted from the same charges. 

She also slammed allegations levelled in the indictment, claiming they were responsible of creating a perception that “violence was used against Gezi protests.” “Did people who lost their lives in Gezi died from a heart attack? Or  46 people lost their sight because of a perception? The real crime is the obstruction of the right to assembly by the use of a brutal police force,” Yapıcı said. 

Çiğdem Mater, filmmaker and prominent activist, Hakan Altınay, a manager at the Anadolu Kültür association and Open Society Foundation’s former Turkey director also made their defense statements on 24 June. During the second day of the hearing, the court heard the statements of lawyer Can Atalay, city planner Tayfun Kahraman, Anadolü Kültür association manager Mine Özerden and businessperson Yiğit Ekmekçi on 25 June.

Speaking after all defendants present at the hearing took the floor, Osman Kavala’s lawyer Köksal Bayraktar said the indictment has qualified the demonstrations linked with the Gezi protests as “non-violent.” “How can the indictment conclude that there was coercion and violence when there is such a qualification,” he asked. Bayraktar said that the Article 312 of the Turkish Penal code, which criminalizes “the attempt of overthrowing the government,” does not consider criticizing the government, holding protests or calling the government to resign as element of crime.

Announcing its interim decision following the lawyers’ statements, the court ruled with a majority of vote to keep Osman Kavala behind bars while releasing Yiğit Aksakoğlu pending trial. Aksakoğlu will be subject to judicial control measures in the form of an overseas travel ban and reporting to the local police station to give hise signature once a week. The next hearing will be held over two days on 18-19 July at the courthouse in the Silivri Prison’s campus. 

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