After the Verdict
The last 16 people on trial for allegedly masterminding the 2013 Gezi Park protests were acquitted by an Istanbul court on Tuesday. On Monday, 230 Gezi activists in the small Thracian city of Kırklareli had already seen their charges quashed. It had seemed too much to hope for a similar decision in Istanbul. Outside the hearing, Republican Party (CHP) leaders waited, apparently ready to pronounce another day in the death of Turkish democracy. When the verdict came, Atatürk’s party seemed to find itself, once again, wrong-footed by the AKP. At least this time the surprise was a pleasant one.
Within hours of his release, however, one of the 16, the businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala, was arrested on a new warrant, accused of involvement in the coup attempt of July 2016. Others had old charges against them reinstated. Some – including the former Cumhuriyet editor Can Dündar and the actor Ayşe Pınar Alabora – are no longer in the country to hear them.
It is Kavala, though, who has earned the brunt of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s animus. He has been in jail since October 2017. Late last year, the European Court of Human Rights ordered his release, but Turkey ignored the judgment. Kavala’s immediate rearrest suggests that the acquittal in the Gezi case may not have been authorised in advance from on high, as was at first widely assumed, but was the decision of a judiciary that still maintains a shred of independence. Among the surprised was Erdoğan himself: ‘They attempted to acquit him with a manoeuvre,’ he told an AKP meeting. Just who this powerful ‘they’ may be, in a country that has been led by the AKP for two decades, is moot.
Erdoğan’s willingness to silence his enemies using the court system is undimmed, however. Among those still behind bars is the Kurdish former leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, who has been in jail in Edirne since November 2016.
After the verdict, social media trends moved from nostalgic hashtags about defending Gezi to reactionary counter-accusations that it was an attempted coup all along. The CHP leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, spoke of the protest village in the park and its utopian spirit. The Gezi protests brought together people from across Turkish society, including socialists, feminists, the unions, anarchist Muslims and Kurdish groups. AKP politicians, meanwhile, focused on the destruction of property, graffiti, and the police losing control of the streets.
Near Taksim Square, in the centre of Istanbul, Gezi Park and its trees are still there. It has not been turned into a shopping mall. The AKP authorities even closed roads to create more pedestrian space and, more recently, installed more trees. In that sense, the protests were a success. But the demonstrators’ wider demands – more democracy, less authoritarianism – seem as remote as ever, with little sign of Erdoğan loosening his grip.