ISTANBUL: Jailed Turkish businessman Osman Kavala and eight other defendants were on Tuesday acquitted over their alleged roles in organizing the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul.
In a surprise move, the Istanbul 30th Heavy Penal Court ordered the prison release of philanthropist and human rights activist Kavala after 840 days behind bars.
Kavala and a number of co-defendants had been facing life sentences on charges of plotting to overthrow the government through violence and force, with the other defendants accused of helping them.
An estimated 3.6 million people took part in the Gezi Park protest events between May 28 and Sept. 25. More than 5,500 individuals were arrested and 189 held in custody, while four civilians and two police officers died in the unrest.
Tweeting after the verdict, Mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu, said: “The acquittal of all the defendants in the Gezi Park trial is a true source of joy, and restores trust in the Turkish judicial system. I salute all those who stand to defend our city’s history, culture and nature.”
The verdict comes at a time of growing tensions between Turkey and Russia in Syria and follows calls from the EU and the Council of Europe for Ankara to release Kavala and all other politically prosecuted activists. As a result, Turkey has suddenly found itself pushing for Western assistance through “symbolic steps.”
In December last year, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) demanded the immediate release of Kavala and ruled that Turkey had violated his rights.
However, Selahattin Demirtas, the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and countless other political prisoners still remain in pre-trial detention.
The case of a further seven defendants, who are abroad and were being tried in absentia, was separated but arrest warrants for them were suspended.
Envoys, diplomatic representatives and consul generals of several European countries attended Tuesday’s court hearing.
The day before the trial, Ahmet Davutoglu, the former Turkish prime minister under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) who recently formed the rival Future Party, was also withdrawn as a plaintiff from all criminal cases involving offenses against him, including the Gezi Park case.
Louis Fishman, a Turkey expert from Brooklyn College, said: “This is fantastic news and highlights from the start that it was nothing more than a politically motivated trial.
“Turkey has a long record of sham trials over the decades and fortunately this one ended without a conviction. However, lives have been ruined and an innocent man, Osman Kavala, was forced to sit in prison for 840 days awaiting his freedom, despite the fact he proved no danger to society,” he told Arab News.
Fishman noted that the case had left a stain on Turkey and its judicial system and did nothing to detract from its continued unjust imprisonment of others.
On Feb. 19, more than two years after they were first detained, a court will give its verdict on 11 human rights activists, including former senior members of Amnesty Turkey. They were accused of “aiding armed terrorist organizations” and “being members of an armed terrorist organization” after attending a meeting on “digital security and protection of human rights defenders” in the Princes’ Islands of Istanbul.
Andrew Gardner, Turkey strategy and research expert at Amnesty International, said they had been awaiting a verdict at the final hearing for some time. “But we are under no illusion. Many of our colleagues, human rights defenders, political prisoners are facing unfair trials or are going through unfair trials and facing unfair verdicts,” he told Arab News.
“The release would be however a change in the political dynamic because it was a politically motivated trial and at the same time an attack against civil society and a crackdown on civil freedoms. The solidarity shown within Turkey from a wide range of society was incredibly important in this process,” he added.