Turkey’s show trial of 16 civic activists looks to be approaching its end. On Tuesday, February 18, an Istanbul court will hear closing arguments in the “Gezi trial,” in which the defendants are absurdly charged with plotting a violent government overthrow by organizing the peaceful nationwide Gezi Park protests of 2013. The seven-year-old protests, which had begun that May as a small sit-in to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park from demolition, spread into a nationwide opposition movement when Turkish police brutally attacked the environmental activists with tear gas and water cannons. The crackdown triggered a months-long protest throughout the country, which represented the largest popular mobilization against Turkey’s longtime strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan since his 2003 ascent to power.
Defendants Osman Kavala, Yiğit Aksakoğlu, and Mücella Yapıcı—all prominent civil society leaders—are facing aggravated life sentences for, as the government says, “orchestrating” the 2013 Gezi “uprising”; seven others face between 15 to 20 years for allegedly assisting the three. As for the remaining six defendants, who have been outside of Turkey since the trial began last June, the prosecutor last week asked for them to be tried separately.
The case has made a mockery of due process and the rule of law. As the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) wrote in its December 10, 2019 ruling on the illegality of the 800-plus day incarceration—including 19 months in pre-trial detention—of Kavala, the prosecutor’s 657-page indictment lacks “facts, information or evidence” showing any criminal activity.
Besides the lack of any legal basis whatsoever for the prosecution, the trial itself has been a charade, tainted by myriad courthouse controversies. Here are some of the most notable:
- Hand-picked judges: The first three hearings of the trial, held in June, July, and October 2019, were defined by the government’s effort to find its preferred panel of three judges. Almost serving as an audition, a different judge presided over each hearing. Tellingly, the lone judge who showed a streak of independence by voting at the July hearing for Kavala to be released—his two co-judges voted to keep Kavala locked up—was replaced before the October hearing.
- Delayed documents: The ECHR ruling, which called for the immediate release of Kavala, raised hopes that he would finally be let out of prison following the December 24 hearing. Turkish courts are bound by ECHR decisions as Turkey is part of the Council of Europe and thus a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. So when the court did not release Kavala on December 24, his defense team, supporters, and some in the media demanded answers.A bizarre, intra-judiciary blame game ensued. The court pointed at the Justice Ministry, saying it had asked the ministry whether the ECHR ruling was final and binding, but had not gotten a response in time for the hearing. Yet Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gül promptly denied that his ministry had been slow in answering, putting the onus on the prosecutor. Gül said the court had asked for a “translation” of the ECHR verdict on Friday, December 20, and that the ministry sent it to the prosecutor on Monday, December 23, before the close of business. But the prosecutor reportedly did not open the document until Tuesday at 1:25 PM—25 minutes after the hearing was concluded. Beyond the fact that the prosecutor failed to submit the translated document on time, the judge also saw fit to proceed with the hearing without it. The whole convoluted episode enabled the prosecutor to keep Kavala locked up in violation of the ECHR ruling.
- Closed-door sessions: A second controversy arose the following day, December 25, when the judge decided to hear the testimony of Murat Papuc, a main informant for the government in the case. Instead of testifying at the December 24 hearing, as the other two informants did, Papuc requested that his testimony against Kavala be heard in a private session–without defense lawyers present–claiming that he faced a security threat, presumably from Kavala’s lawyers. The judge bizarrely granted Papuc’s request. At that private session, Papuc simply confirmed to the court that his complaint against the defendants was “correct,” upon which the court asked the prosecution and defense to submit their questions to Papuc in another private session on January 20, where once again no cross-examination was possible.Twelve Turkish bar associations jointly declared that the court’s decision to grant Papuc a private hearing violated Kavala’s “right to defense” and amounted to an effort to “neutralize” his attorneys. Kavala’s lawyers asked the judges to recuse themselves from the case for violating fair trial rights by preventing cross-examination, which the judges promptly refused to do.
- Shady witnesses and plaintiffs: Making matters worse, Papuc himself is a controversial figure. The main “witness” in the Gezi investigation, Papuc is a former member of the Turkish Communist Party and an ex-soldier who was reportedly sacked from the army due to “psychological issues.” Claiming to have done “academic research” on Turkish civil society organizations and their foreign ties, he reportedly approached the police in March 2016 regarding the allegedly covert activities of Kavala, Yapıcı, and defendant Can Atalay as the “organizers” of the Gezi protests, but then later declared in 2018 that he had not “named any person or institution.”
In another mind-boggling move, during the trial’s most recent hearing on January 28, the court also accepted the prosecutor’s request for a police officer who was convicted of killing college student Ali İsmail Korkmaz during the Gezi protests to join as a plaintiff. The officer claimed to be a victim of the Gezi “violence” as he had suffered a toe injury—while kicking Korkmaz to death. Korkmaz’s mother and brother attended the hearing on January 28, and sat right beside Kavala in solidarity with the defendants. The prosecutor has provided no evidence that any of the 16 defendants were anywhere near the incident in which Korkmaz was killed.
Closing the Chapter?
The February 18 hearing may well be the Gezi trial’s last (at least for the 10 of 16 defendants who remain in Turkey). Having consistently ignored due process and legal norms throughout the prosecution, the Turkish court is likely to continue defying the ECHR and to convict Kavala and others, handing them heavy sentences. The case has so frustrated the defense lawyers that they stormed out of the courtroom in protest at the last hearing. They are not hopeful. Whatever fate awaits the defendants, the Gezi trial, with all its absurdities, procedural violations, and courthouse controversies, has already become another affront to the rule of law under Erdogan and a stain on the history of Turkish democracy.
Illustration: Murat Başolî