(Istanbul) – The prosecution of 35 football fans on coup-plot charges is a blatant misuse of the criminal justice system. The trial of supporters of Beşiktaş football club, associated with its Çarşı fan group, began today in Istanbul.
The group joined mass anti-government protests in June 2013 triggered by opposition to government plans for development on the site of Gezi Park in central Istanbul. The evidence presented in the prosecutor’s indictment contains no allegation of activities that either fit the charge of an attempt to overthrow the government or of the other offenses for which the defendants are on trial, such as acting as a criminal gang and resisting the police.
“Charging these Beşiktaş football club fans as enemies of the state for joining a public protest is a ludicrous travesty,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The indictment contains no evidence to support the coup attempt charges and should never have come to court. The prosecutor should immediately indicate that he does not believe the charges should be pursued and ask the court for their acquittal.”
The evidence in the Istanbul prosecutor’s September 2014 indictment against the 35 consists of intercepted telephone calls and text messages, the defendants’ possession of gas masks and goggles to avoid teargas, and video footage showing that the fans were at the demonstrations, along with thousands of others.
There is no specific allegation of any violent activity or criminal conduct and no suggestion that firearms the police found in some defendants’ homes were used or planned for use during the protests. The defendants’ intercepted telephone calls and text messages express opposition to the government, excitable sentiments of support for the demonstrations, and a few rhetorical claims but do not constitute evidence of criminal activity.
All the defendants in this trial are at liberty.
“It is alarming to see that President Erdoğan’s characterization of the Gezi protests as an attempt to overthrow the government has been adopted by the prosecutor as the basis of this indictment,” Sinclair-Webb said. “It reveals a great deal about the enormous pressure being exerted on Turkey’s justice system by the government.”
The Çarşı trial is one among hundreds of ongoing legal proceedings against thousands of demonstrators who participated in the anti-government protests in cities around the country triggered by the Istanbul Gezi Park sit-in. Some trials have ended in defendants being acquitted while others are continuing. Those charged with terrorism offenses and still on trial spent up to 10 months in pretrial detention before being freed on bail.
Among the cases in Istanbul, a trial began in June of five organizers of Taksim Solidarity, a platform of 128 nongovernmental organizations supporting the Gezi Park campaign and sit-in. They were charged with forming a criminal gang, inciting and participating in unlawful demonstrations, and refusing orders to disperse. The next hearing of their ongoing trial with 21 codefendants is scheduled for January 2015.
Another ongoing trial of 255 people who participated in the Gezi Park protests is under way in a separate Istanbul court. That group is charged with joining unlawful demonstrations, refusing orders to disperse, and damaging public property. Among the defendants are people who had taken refuge in a mosque and doctors who treated them for excessive exposure to teargas. The next hearing is scheduled for March.