Turkey’s Taksim Square protest leaders go on trial
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More than two dozen Turkish activists who helped launch mass anti-government protests last year go on trial Thursday in what critics have called yet another attempt by the authorities to crush dissent.
Doctors, architects and engineers are among the 26 people set to be tried over their role in the protests, with each facing up to 29 years in prison if found guilty of a range of charges including founding a crime syndicate, violating public order and organising illegal protests through social media.
The accused are all alleged leaders of Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group of civil society, union and political groups that was at the forefront of demonstrations marking the biggest challenge yet to the 11-year rule of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The activist group was formed after the government announced plans to redevelop Gezi Park, one of the last remaining green spaces in central Istanbul, and neighbouring Taksim Square, the country's most symbolic rallying point.
But what started as a small environmentalist movement quickly blew up into wider nationwide demonstrations against Erdogan's authoritarian style.
Authorities have been accused of using excessive force to break up the protests, with at least eight people killed and some 8,000 injured in a brutal police crackdown on the demonstrations.
Taksim Solidarity met Erdogan at the height of the unrest in June last year to discuss the protesters' demands, only to be accused by the premier of being "traitors" aiming to destabilise the government.
Mucella Yapici, 63, general secretary of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects, is one of the key accused. She told AFP she was briefly detained by police, who stripped her naked and deprived her of medication for a range of chronic illnesses.
But she said she was not afraid to spend the rest of her life behind bars.
"I've lived a full life. It doesn't matter where I spend the rest of it when you consider that a 14-year-old boy has been killed," she said, referring to Berkin Elvan, who died of injuries sustained during the unrest.
Her lawyer Turgut Kazan told AFP there was not enough evidence that a crime organisation had been formed.
"There is only one sentence in the indictment that suggests why my client is being accused of founding a crime organisation: 'Because she came together with other people'," he said.
‘The only goal is to scare people’
Also going on trial is Ali Cerkezoglu, secretary general of the Istanbul Medical Chamber, who treated several wounded protesters.
In January, Turkey passed a new law making it a crime for doctors to provide emergency first aid without a permit, which critics said was an attempt to block doctors from treating protesters.
Several trials related to the protests are already taking place across the country, but Thursday's trial has the highest profile.
"The only goal of this case is to scare people. Prosecutors hand-picked a person from each social group with the aim of putting them in jail. They want to show that anyone, regardless of their age, profession or background, can be prosecuted for being a protester," said Baki Boga, of the Human Rights Association Turkey.
"This is a politically-motivated case aimed at completely wiping out the dissenting voices in Turkey."
According to Amnesty International, more than 5,500 people have already been prosecuted in connection with the Taksim Square protests.
In a report released this week to mark the anniversary of the demonstrations, the rights group accused the Turkish government of an “abusive” approach to protesters, while allowing police brutality to go unpunished.
“The Turkish authorities have been relentless in their crackdown on protesters – be it police violence on the streets or by prosecuting them through the courts. Meanwhile the police enjoy near total impunity,” said Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty.
“The message is clear: peaceful demonstrations will not be tolerated.”
The government did not go ahead with plans to demolish the park, but it has become a site of frequent clashes between police and protesters. Dozens were injured on the anniversary of last year's protest on May 31.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)