Crisis with Russia seen behind acquittals in Turkish trial

The presiding judge said there was “not enough concrete evidence” that Kavala and the other 15 defendants sought to overthrow the government.

ISTANBUL — In one of the most closely watched political trials in Turkey in recent years, a court in Istanbul acquitted leading civil society figures over the anti-government “Gezi Park” protests of 2013, a decision that appears to have been influenced by Ankara’s determination to repair ties with the West amid a crisis with Russia, analysts said.

The decision, announced February 18, to free nine defendants, including the prominent rights activist Osman Kavala, came as a surprise. “I don’t know what to say,” said Can Atalay, one of the accused. “We never expected this.”

The presiding judge said there was “not enough concrete evidence” that Kavala and the other 15 defendants sought to overthrow the government by organising the Gezi protests, sparked in May 2013 by a government decision to build a shopping mall in Gezi Park, one of the last green patches in central Istanbul.

The Gezi demonstrations spiralled into broader demonstrations against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time. Erdogan has called Kavala an agent of US financier George Soros, whose efforts to promote democracy around the world have made him a target of authoritarian leaders.

Kavala, who spent more than 800 days in pre-trial detention and faced a life-in-prison sentence if convicted, became a symbol of what critics say is a crackdown on Turkey’s civil society under Erdogan. Kavala was a frequent partner of European institutions in projects in Turkey.

The European Court of Human Rights called for Kavala’s release last year. It ruled that the 657-page indictment against Kavala lacked “facts, information or evidence” to raise even the suspicion that he helped organise the protests, let alone attempted to overthrow the government and called for his immediate release.

“The bill of indictment… set out a conspiracy theory, devoid of ascertainable facts,” it said. Seven of the defendants, who remain on the run, have not been formally acquitted. Reports said they would probably be found not guilty as well.

The Project on Middle East Democracy, a US-based advocacy group, in a briefing note, said the case “made a mockery of due process and the rule of law.”

Kavala’s supporters say he was targeted because he worked to build bridges across Turkey’s often fractious ethnic and social divides, in contrast to the combative rhetoric favoured by Erdogan’s ruling party. As chairman of the Anatolian Culture Foundation, which promotes human rights through art, Kavala sought to build ties with neighbouring Armenia, with which Turkey has no diplomatic relations.

“The acquittals were overdue, the whole trial should never had taken place,” Markus Beeko, secretary-general of Amnesty International in Germany, said in a statement.

“This is a trial that should have never happened in the first place. This whole process has caused untold misery to those who were so wrongfully targeted,” Emma Sinclair-Webb, of Human Rights Watch, told Agence France-Presse at the courthouse.

Analysts pointed to the influence of the Turkish government over the judiciary and said that political considerations were likely to have been crucial in the court’s decision.

“Yesterday, the defendants were enemies of the state and today they are acquitted,” said Savas Genc, a political scientist and Turkey expert at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. “No judge in Turkey can jail or free a prominent defendant without receiving a wink from the [presidential] palace.”

“The acquittals are a sign of the Erdogan government’s pragmatism,” Genc said by telephone. “It wants to turn towards Europe again because of the crises in relations with Russia.”

Ties between Ankara and Moscow have come under strain because of the situation in the Syrian province of Idlib, where thousands of Turkish troops are holding territory to block an advance by the Syrian Army, which is supported by Russia.

Suat Kiniklioglu, a former Turkish lawmaker, also said he suspected there were foreign policy factors behind the ruling.

“I think Ankara recognises that things with Moscow are inevitably moving into an undesired direction,” Kiniklioglu wrote on Twitter. “There is no need to further alienate the Europeans at a time when Ankara may need their support from Idlib to refugees.”

“In my view the acquittals also attest to the continued capacity of effective pragmatism with total disregard for any concerns about ideology or consistency. It is all about survival. Machiavelli must be proud with them.”

Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.

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