Turkey Issues Fresh Detention Request After Surprise Acquittal in Protest Trial

Surprise ruling met with applause in the courtroom

Turkish soldiers stand guard in front of the Silivri Prison and Courthouse complex in Silivri, near Istanbul, during the trial of Osman Kavala, along with 15 other people, February 18, 2020
AFP

Prosecutors on Tuesday demanded the re-arrest of Turkish businessman Osman Kavala in connection with the failed 2016 coup, hours after he was acquitted over his alleged role in the Gezi Park protests of 2013, a document seen by Reuters showed.

The acquittal of Kavala and eight others over the demonstrations that posed a major challenge to then-premier, now president Tayyip Erdogan was surprising in a case that had drawn criticism from Western allies and rights groups.

The fresh detention request by Istanbul prosecutors came as scores of people including lawmakers, other defendants and supporters were waiting for Kavala to be released at a roadside restaurant near the Silivri prison complex where he was held.

"It was...Erdogan who ordered the arrest of Kavala, and it was him who ordered his release today. We have been waiting for his release for 5 hours, and now they are making up charges related to the coup," said pro-Kurdish HDP lawmaker Garo Paylan.

"Nobody is safe against this judicial cruelty in Turkey. I am seriously worried about arbitrary judicial decisions and trumped up charges," he added. There was no immediate update from judicial authorities on Kavala's status.

In court earlier, applause erupted and some people cried in disbelief when the decision was announced. A guilty verdict had been widely expected in the case, regarded as a test of justice in Turkey.

Kavala, also a prominent philanthropist, was ordered to be set free after more than two years in jail. The European Court of Human Rights in December demanded his immediate release, saying there was a lack of reasonable suspicion that he had committed a crime.

"Of course today's decision is the right one (but) this has been a sham process. We've seen Turkey's justice system turned into an absurd, cruel theatre," Human Rights Watch Turkey director Emma Sinclair-Webb told Reuters.

In 2013, hundreds of thousands marched in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey against plans approved by Erdogan to build a replica Ottoman barracks in the city's Gezi Park.

Eight young protesters and a police officer were killed and 5,000 people were injured in the unrest.

Following Tuesday's acquittal, Industry Minister Mustafa Varank condemned the Gezi protests as a "betrayal" that had damaged the country democratically and economically.

Kavala and two other defendants had been facing life sentences without parole, while the other six defendants were accused of aiding them in attempting to overthrow the government by organising the protests. All denied the allegations. Only Kavala had been kept in custody while the trial proceeded.

At one point in Tuesday's court session, police scuffled with defense lawyers who tried to prevent them forcibly removing a lawyer who had repeatedly requested permission to speak.

'Conspiratorial fiction'

The cases of seven further defendants, who are abroad and were being tried in absentia, were separated but arrest warrants for them were lifted. One lawyer said they were also expected to be acquitted.
Critics of Erdogan's government have questioned the independence of Turkish courts, especially since a sweeping security crackdown following the 2016 coup attempt. Erdogan and his AK Party say the judiciary makes independent decisions.

Mucella Yapici, one of the defendants acquitted, said in an interview: "I hope this is the beginning, the first step of returning to law. That is what Gezi is, it is a step towards the light."

In his defense, Kavala pointed to the European Court of Human Rights decision demanding his immediate release and had described as a "conspiratorial fiction" the idea that the protests were an attempt to overthrow the government.

A court previously acquitted people prosecuted over the 2013 protests, with a judge ruling in 2015 they were exercising the right of freedom of assembly. But in 2017 Kavala was arrested and the following year police rounded up the other 15 defendants including civil society figures, writers and actors.

The prosecutions were part of a crackdown that Turkish authorities said was necessary on security grounds. It has involved widespread purges of the armed forces, ministries and state organizations.