In surprise move, Turkey acquits nine on charges stemming from 2013 Gezi protests

Borzou Daragahi
Members and spokeswoman Mucella Yapici (C) of the Taksim Solidarity Platform celebrates outside the Silivri Prison and Courthouse complex in Silivri, near Istanbul on Tuesday: AFP via Getty Images

A Turkish court on Tuesday dismissed national security charges against 16 high-profile liberal and leftist activists involved in major 2013 protests against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ignoring the recommendation of prosecutors to hand life sentences without parole to some of the defendants.

Among those acquitted and allowed to walk out of prison was Osman Kavala, a philanthropist and liberal activist held in prison for more than two years on accusations of plotting to overthrow the government, the official Anadolu news agency reported.

Liberals and leftists celebrated the decision, which comes among a string of victories for their political wing that includes the election of Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu last year against the candidate of the ruling Justice and Development Party.

The European Court of Human Rights in December demanded the immediate release of Mr Kavala.

“Today’s decision is hugely welcome and confirms what has been clear to the entire world for more than two years,” said Milena Buyum, an Amnesty International official.

“The only just verdict in this baseless case, devoid of any substance, was always going to be the wholesale acquittal of those who stood trial, but in today’s Turkey this was far from guaranteed.”

The prosecutor may challenge the judge’s decision. Supporters of the government accused Mr Kavala and others of being “terrorists” because of the damage the protesters allegedly caused to private and public property as part of a secret anti-government conspiracy financed from abroad, including Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist George Soros.

"Who is behind him? The famous Hungarian Jew Soros," Mr Erdogan said in 2018.

The 2013 protest movement initially erupted out of opposition to government plans to fashion an Ottoman-style military barracks and shopping area on the site of central Istanbul’s Gezi Park but quickly escalated to include grievances against Mr Erdogan’s style and ambitions.

For a generation of Turks, it was a defining moment.

“The Gezi movement was a unique moment in time where people in Turkey demanded a new, inclusive democracy, out in the streets,” the scholar Daghan Irak, wrote on Twitter.

“Gezi was the direct antithesis of the current unlawful, autocratic regime. That's exactly why they want to criminalise it.”

Turkey’s judiciary has been subject to pressure by Mr Erdogan and his allies. But it remains unclear whether the acquitals on Tuesday were rooted in law or fresh political calculations.

There are numerous signs that Mr Erdogan’s inner circle has decided that prosecuting liberals and leftists yields few political benefits but many headaches, including international attention from human rights groups and diplomatic pressure.

There are numerous signs that Mr Erdogan’s inner circle has decided that prosecuting liberals and leftists yields few political benefits but many headaches

Pro-government television channels reported extensively on the acquittals. "They were being prosecuted for years for nothing; this is unfair," columnist Sevilay Yilman said in a television appearance on staunchly pro-government Haberturk. "The decision is fair and compatible with legal principles.”

Human rights monitors are watching closely to see the verdict on Wednesday in the case of another group of activists charged with national security crimes.

Even as the pressure on Gezi veterans eases, the government continues to crack down harshly on the Kurdish movement linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party as well as those tied to the religious movement of Fethullah Gulen, a self-exiled cleric living in the United States who is accused of masterminding a 2016 coup attempt that left 251 people dead.

Turkish authorities on Tuesday issued arrest warrants for at least 739 suspected supporters of the Gulen movement, which the government refers to as the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation, or Feto. At least 179 people have been arrested as part of a crackdown across the country that includes justice ministry officials and soldiers, the official Anadolu news agency reported.

While scores of activists, scholars, journalists and diplomats board early-morning buses to flock to the trials of the Gezi defendants, few if any show up for the Gulenists.