Sixteen leading Turkish civil society leaders appeared in court on Monday, accused of seeking to overthrow the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during the Gezi Park protests of 2013, in a trial dubbed a political sham by critics.
The group includes renowned businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala, whose detention since November 2017 has made him a symbol of what critics say is a crackdown on civil society.
Kavala rejected the “irrational claims which lack evidence” in his opening statement, shortly after the trial began under high security in the prison and court complex of Silivri on the outskirts of İstanbul.
He is accused of orchestrating and financing the protests which began over government plans to build over Gezi Park, one of the few green spaces left in İstanbul.
The protests snowballed into a nationwide movement that marked the first serious challenge to Erdoğan’s brand of Islamic conservatism and grandiose development projects.
The 657-page indictment seeks to paint the protests as a foreign-directed conspiracy with links to the Arab Spring, which, ironically, the Turkish government supported.
“None of these actions were coincidental … they were supported from the outside as an operation to bring the Turkish Republic to its knees,” the indictment says.
One of the allegations is the claim that a map on Kavala’s phone showing bee species actually depicted his plans to redraw Turkey’s borders.
Kavala is chairman of the Anatolian Culture Foundation, which seeks to bridge ethnic and regional divides through art, including with neighboring Armenia, with which Turkey has no diplomatic ties.
“I was involved in projects contributing to peace and reconciliation. There is not a single piece of evidence or proof in the indictment that I laid the groundwork for a military coup,” Kavala told the court.
Among the others on trial are experts in urban planning and architecture.
Six are being tried in absentia after fleeing the country, including Turkish actor Mehmet Ali Alabora and dissident journalist Can Dündar.
The case against Alabora focuses on his appearance in a play featuring a revolt against the ruler of a fictional country.
But Erdoğan has particularly focused on Kavala, accusing the businessman of “financing the terrorists” during the protests and linking him to US billionaire George Soros, whose efforts to promote democracy around the world have made him a target for several authoritarian leaders.
Last year, Erdoğan said Kavala was the representative in Turkey of the “famous Hungarian Jew Soros” whom he accused of trying to “divide and tear up nations.”
Soros’s Open Society Foundation, which ceased activities in Turkey last year, called Monday’s trial a “political sham.”
“The charges in this case follow a political script that seeks to silence all critical voices in Turkey,” said foundation president Patrick Gaspard in a statement.
“That they are now on trial, facing possible life sentences, is a tragedy.”
Some of the suspects were already tried in 2015 and acquitted for their role in the Gezi Park protests.
In January 2019, Council of Europe (CoE) Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović submitted an opinion in a case brought by Kavala against the government of Turkey at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).
Mijatović described Kavala’s incarceration as part of increasing pressure in Turkey on the legitimate activities of human rights activists and civil society organizations. (SCF with turkishminute.com)