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Yiğit Aksakoğlu on trial in Gezi Park Case

Status: 
Released on Probation
About the situation

The first hearing in the trial of 16 human rights defenders who are accused of financing and organizing the Gezi Park protests in 2013 in an attempt to overthrow the government was held on 24 and 25 June 2019. If convicted, the human rights defenders face a possible sentence of life in prison without parole. Two of the defendants, Osman Kavala and Yiğit Aksakoğlu were arbitrarily arrested in November 2017 and November 2018 respectively and have been awaiting trial since then. While the Court ruled that Yiğit Aksakoğlu be released on probation with an international travel ban, Osman Kavala remains in detention. The next hearing will be held on 18 and 19 July 2019.

On 20 February 2019, the indictment of 16 human rights defenders, including Yiğit Aksakoğlu, was issued by the Prosecutor’s Office. They are charged with, among other crimes, “attempting to overthrow the government” for their alleged involvement in the organisation of the Gezi Park Protests, a mass anti-government protest that took place in 2013.

On 17 November 2018, Yiğit Aksakoğlu was arrested on the allegation of “attempting to overthrow the government or to avoid, partially or entirely, its performance”. The other 12 human rights defenders, who were taken into custody with him in simultaneous police operations on 16 November 2018, were released on judicial control.

About Yiğit Aksakoğlu

Yigit AksakogluYiğit Aksakoğlu is a human rights defender who serves as the Turkey Country Director for the Bernard van Leer Foundation, working on early childhood development. He was coordinating the Project Istanbul95, in collaboration with four municipal authorities in Istanbul, which consists of monitoring the health and social development of 480 new born babies and their families. He is also a former staff member of İstanbul Bilgi University’s NGO Research and Training Unit and Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation.

29 June 2019
Yiğit Aksakoğlu released, Osman Kavala remains under detention

The first hearing in the trial of 16 human rights defenders who are accused of financing and organizing the Gezi Park protests in 2013 in an attempt to overthrow the government was held on 24 and 25 June 2019. If convicted, the human rights defenders face a possible sentence of life in prison without parole. Two of the defendants, Osman Kavala and Yiğit Aksakoğlu were arbitrarily arrested in November 2017 and November 2018 respectively and have been awaiting trial since then. While the Court ruled that Yiğit Aksakoğlu be released on probation with an international travel ban, Osman Kavala remains in detention. The next hearing will be held on 18 and 19 July 2019.

The indicted human rights defenders are; Osman Kavala, businessman and philanthropist, the chairman of the board of directors of Anadolu Kültür and founder or advisory board member of many civil society organisations including History Foundation, TEMA and TESEV; Yiğit Aksakoğlu, Turkey representative of the Bernard van Leer Foundation, a Dutch philanthropic organization focusing on early child development projects, and former worker at İstanbul Bilgi University NGO Training and Research Unit; Yiğit Ali Ekmekçi, deputy chair of Anadolu Kültür, executive board member of Terakki Foundation Schools and a founding member of many educational institutions, including the Nesin Foundation and İstanbul Bilgi University; Çiğdem Mater Utku, film producer, journalist and one of the consultants of Anadolu Kültür; Ali Hakan Altınay, executive board member of Anadolu Kültür, director of Boğaziçi European School of Politics in Istanbul and founding member and chair of Global Civics Academy; Mine Özerden, advertiser, civil society activist, film-maker, co-director, the secretary general of Taksim Platform and former worker at Anadolu Kültür; Tayfun Kahraman, academic, urban planner, member of Taksim Solidarity and member and executive board chair of TMMOB Chamber of Urban Planners İstanbul Office; Şerafettin Can Atalay, lawyer of TMMOB, member of Taksim Solidarity, executive board member of Social Rights Association; Ayşe Mücella Yapıcı, architect, member of Taksim Solidarity, the secretary general of Environmental Impact Assessment Department of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects; Gökçe (Yılmaz) Tüylüoğlu, Open Society Foundations Turkey representative; Hanzade Hikmet Germiyanoğlu, education consultant and coordinator of Civil Society Development Center (STGM); İnanç Ekmekçi, civil society professional working at many civil society organisations on children’s rights, refugee’s rights, women’s human rights and ecology; Can Dündar, journalist and former editor of Cumhuriyet newspaper; Memet Ali Alabora, actor and former president of Actor/Actress Union; Ayşe Pınar Alabora, actress; Handan Meltem Arıkan, a novelist and playwright.

Although there were several prosecutions in 2015 following the protests, all cases against individuals and organisations concerning the Gezi protests ended in acquittals in 2015. Yet, in the past two years, the Turkish authorities re-opened the criminal investigation and resumed prosecution of the alleged organisers of the 2013 Gezi Park Protests.

As part of those operations, on 18 October 2017, Osman Kavala was taken into custody at Istanbul’s Atatürk International Airport and was arrested on 1 November 2017 both for his involvement in the Gezi protests as well as his “unnaturally close contact” with foreign persons, who the Turkish authorities accuse of being behind the attempted coup on 15 July 2016. On 16 November 2018, 13 human rights defenders were taken into custody “for their activities in a hierarchical structure led by Osman Kavala”, according to the information note provided by the police department. Twelve were promptly released, but Yiğit Aksakoğlu remained in custody and was subsequently arrested.

On 4 March 2019, Istanbul 30th Heavy Penal Court approved the 657-page indictment submitted by the prosecutor’s office, which accuses the 16 human rights defenders of financing and organising the Gezi protests. The indictment was filed on the last day of the response period that European Court of Human Rights had provided to the government of Turkey after an application by the legal representatives of Osman Kavala. The indictment argues that the Gezi protests were not a largely spontaneous wave of anti-government protests, but the outcome of a planned conspiracy, which was designed by the philanthropist George Soros, founder of Open Society Foundations, and led by Osman Kavala and a small group of people indicted with him, in order to destabilize Turkey and overthrow the government. Evidence presented in the indictment consists of hundreds of intercepted telephone calls between the defendants during and after the Gezi protests, details of their international travels, their social media posts, and some surveillance camera photographs. The defendants face a possible life sentence without parole, on the charge of “attempting, by use of force and violence, to abolish the government, or prevent it from fulfilling its duties” without any concrete evidence. In addition to the main charge, the indictment also holds them responsible for crimes allegedly committed during the protests across Turkey, and thus they face additional charges of “damaging public property”, “damaging a place of worship or cemetery”, “unlawful possession of dangerous substances”, “unlawful possession of weapons”, “looting” and “serious injury”.

On 24 and 25 June 2019, the first hearing of the case held at İstanbul 30th Heavy Penal Court in Silivri, Osman Kavala Yiğit Aksakoğlu, Mücella Yapıcı, Ali Hakan Altınay, Mine Özerden, Çiğdem Mater Utku, Can Atalay, Tayfun Kahraman and Yiğit Ali Ekmekçi made their defence statements. The remaining defendants were not present at the hearing. Currently there are arrest warrants issued against İnanç Ekmekçi, Memet Ali Alabora, Ayşe Pınar Alabora, Handan Meltem Arıkan, Can Dündar, Gökçe (Yılmaz) Tüylüoğlu and Hanzade Hikmet Germiyanoğlu. In the 24 and 25 June hearing, both the judges and the lawyers agreed on hearing only the statements of the legal representatives of the two imprisoned defendants, considering the possibility of an interim decision for the release. The lawyers of the other defendants will make their statements at the next hearing. Osman Kavala and Yiğit Aksakoğlu were arbitrarily detained in Silivri prison since November 2017 and November 2018. While the Court ruled that Yiğit Aksakoğlu be released on probation with an international travel ban, Osman Kavala remains imprisoned. The next hearing is scheduled to be held on 18 and 19 July 2019.

During the first hearing, both the defendants and their lawyers drew attention to the lack of evidence and manifestly illegal arguments in the indictment.

Firstly, the indictment itself was prepared based on an investigation carried out in 2013 by a prosecutor who is currently a fugitive and on the results of telephone tapping ordered by a senior police officer. Both the prosecutor and the police officer are currently charged in relation to their alleged involvement with a movement described by the Turkish government as “FETÖ/PYD” (Fetullah Gülen Terrorist Organisation). The authorities accuse the movement of using its members in the police and the judiciary to initiate sham trials against its adversaries by using illegal or fake evidence and trumped-up charges. The judges who ordered the telephone tapping of the defendants are also charged with involvement in “FETÖ/PYD". The indictment opens with an explanation of this issue and argues that the evidence collected by the accused prosecutors and judges have been “valued”, which is not a legal term in the Turkish Criminal Code. The indictment does not explain how the illegally collected evidence and the indictment prepared with trumped-up charges were “valued”.

Secondly, the indictment contains explicit errors in facts, and fails to make any effort to establish a link between the allegations and the facts. For example, the indictment includes no evidence of meetings, phone calls, or other actions of a conspiracy made in advance of Gezi. Most of the "evidence" collected dates to either during or after the Gezi protests, with the exception of some details on international travel. The telephone calls mostly consist of random conversations, with only some of them relating to the Gezi protests. There are numerous errors in dates, in the activities allegedly carried out by the defendants, and even in the names of the organisations/platforms that they were involved. Evidence presented in the indictment includes a television station that never broadcast and a film that was never made. Furthermore, the indictment contains no evidence of financial support provided to organize the Gezi protests. The Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK) reports do not identify any payments that might be evidence of money provided to organize the protests or even for unidentified purposes. The closest evidence provided to support this is the grants provided to projects conducted by civil society organisations and intercepted telephone calls from Osman Kavala talking about lending a plastic folding table or sending food to Gezi Park.

Thirdly, the lawyers during the hearing drew attention to the fact that the crime of “attempting to abolish the government, or prevent it from fulfilling its duties” can be only committed “with the use of force and violence” according to the relevant Article in the Turkish Criminal Code. However, while the indictment presents no evidence that the human rights defenders incited the use of force and violence, it lists “non-violent acts and persuasion methods” that were used during the protests, portraying them as illegal activities that seem “innocent” at first glance. For example, the human rights defenders are accused of bringing professional protestors, trainers and facilitators from abroad to focus on issues like “civil disobedience” and “peaceful protesting” in order to prolong the Gezi Park protests and participating in the creation of new media sources in order to influence public opinion about the existing and future protests. As an effort to establish “the use of force and violence” element, the indictment accuses the defendants of responsibility for some violent acts allegedly committed by protesters in different cities during the protests, by defining them as “indirect perpetrators” of those acts.

While Front Line Defenders welcomes the release of Yiğit Aksakoğlu on probation, it expresses its concern at the criminalisation of human rights defenders over their alleged involvement in peaceful protests, the ongoing detention of Osman Kavala and judicial harassment of the 16 human rights defenders, as it believes that they are solely linked to their legitimate and peaceful work in defence of human rights. It urges the authorities in Turkey to immediately release Osman Kavala, drop all the charges against the 16 human rights defenders, and guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in Turkey are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions.

25 February 2019
Sixteen human rights defenders, including Yiğit Aksakoğlu, indicted

On 20 February 2019, the indictment of 16 human rights defenders, including Yiğit Aksakoğlu, was issued by the Prosecutor’s Office. They are charged with, among other crimes, “attempting to overthrow the government” for their alleged involvement in the organisation of the Gezi Park Protests, a mass anti-government protest that took place in 2013. Yiğit Aksakoğlu has been in detention since 17 November 2018.

Yiğit Aksakoğlu serves as the Turkey Country Director for the Bernard van Leer Foundation, working on early childhood development. He was coordinating the project Istanbul95, in collaboration with four municipal authorities in Istanbul, which consists of monitoring the health and social development of 480 newborn babies and their families. He is also a former staff member of İstanbul Bilgi University’s NGO Research and Training Unit and Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation. The other 15 human rights defenders include lawyers, urban planners, actors and actresses, writers, journalists as well as employees and board members of civil society organisation, Anadolu Kültür. All 16 human rights defenders have been active members of civil society pushing for democracy and rule of law in Turkey over the past number of years.

On 20 February 2019, the Office of the Istanbul’s Chief Prosecutor organised a press conference and released details of the indictment of 16 human rights defenders, including Yiğit Aksakoğlu. The indictment is pending the approval of Istanbul’s 30th High Criminal Court. In the 657-page indictment, the 16 human rights defenders were accused of being the masterminds behind the 2013 Gezi Park Protests, “provoking and preparing” the protests since 2011 and “financing and coordinating” the protests. The human rights defenders are charged with several crimes including “attempting to overthrow the government”, “damaging property,” “unlawful possession and transference of hazardous substances,” “damaging  sanctuaries and cemeteries,” “looting” and “assault.” They all face life sentences without parole. Yiğit Aksakoğlu has been detained since November 2018 and is being held in solitary confinement.

In a letter he sent to the online newspaper Bianet on 18 February 2019, Yiğit Aksakoğlu revealed details of his questioning in November 2018. He was presented with a 100-page list of questions including transcripts from 150 different records of his personal and professional phone conversations. The phone conversations dated back to the period between June 2013 and February 2014, and were alleged to be related to the Gezi Park Protests. According to the human rights defender, all conversations were related to his legitimate and legal civil society activities. In the letter he further stated that he was persistently questioned about whether he was being instructed by anyone.

In the past two years, Turkish authorities have resumed the criminal investigation of the alleged organisers of the 2013 Gezi Park Protests. Osman Kavala, a prominent philanthropist and human rights defender, has been accused of being the “mastermind” behind the protests. He has been in detention since November 2017. Many prominent civil society actors in Turkey have been questioned about their alleged involvement in the protests and their connection with Osman Kavala and his civil society organisations, Anadolu Kültür and Açık Toplum Vakfı.  

Yiğit Aksakoğlu was arrested following  simultaneous police raids against prominent academics and civil society actors at various addresses in İstanbul, Adana, Antalya and Muğla on 16 November 2018.  On 17 November, he was arrested on the accusation of “attempting to overthrow the government”. The court based its decision on allegations that he had participated in several meetings, as moderator and facilitator, in order to organise a new round of protests following the Gezi Park Protests. The court further stated that it was not able to confirm the agenda of the meetings, but it had concluded that the meetings related to civil disobedience and peaceful protests on the basis of his phone records. Yiğit Aksakoğlu’s phone conversations had been monitored since 2013 and he had also been under physical surveillance by the authorities.

Front Line Defenders expresses its concern at the criminalisation of human rights defenders over their alleged involvement in peaceful protests, the ongoing detention of Yiğit Aksakoğlu and judicial harassment of the 16 human rights defenders, as it believes that they are solely linked to their legitimate and peaceful work in defence of human rights. It urges the authorities in Turkey to immediately drop all the charges against the 16 human rights defenders, and guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in Turkey are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions.

20 November 2018
Yiğit Aksakoğlu arrested

On 17 November 2018, Yiğit Aksakoğlu was arrested on the allegation of “attempting to overthrow the government or to avoid, partially or entirely, its performance”. The other 12 human rights defenders, who were taken into custody with him in simultaneous police operations on 16 November 2018, were released on judicial control.

Yiğit Aksakoğlu is a human rights defender who serves as the Turkey Country Director for the Bernard van Leer Foundation, working on early childhood development. He was coordinating the Project Istanbul95, in collaboration with four municipal authorities in Istanbul, which consists of monitoring the health and social development of 480 new born babies and their families. He is also a former staff member of İstanbul Bilgi University’s NGO Research and Training Unit and Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation.

In the early morning of 16 November 2018, police carried out simultaneous raids at various addresses in İstanbul, Adana, Antalya and Muğla. 13 human rights defenders, including academics and prominent civil society actors, were taken into custody while the arrest warrant was issued against 20 people. The human rights defenders were held at Vatan Police Department and questioned by the prosecutor about their involvement in the mass Gezi Park Protests in 2013, as well as their relation to Anadolu Kültür and Açık Toplum Vakfı, civil society organisations affiliated with Osman Kavala. Following their questioning, on 16 and 17 November 2018, all human rights defenders, except for Yiğit Aksakoğlu, were released from police custody on judicial control. Although it was not specified in the court decision, their lawyers believe that the judicial control includes a travel ban, which is a widespread court practice in Turkey.

Yiğit Aksakoğlu was referred to the court on 17 November 2018 and arrested on the accusation of “attempting to overthrow the government or to avoid, partially or entirely, its performance”. The court motivated its decision on the allegations that he had participated in several meetings, as moderator and facilitator in order to organise new round of protests following Gezi Park Protests. The court further stated that they were not able to confirm the agenda of the meetings, but have concluded that the meetings were about civil disobedience and peaceful protesting, on the basis of his phone conversation records. Yiğit Aksakoğlu’s phone conversations have been monitored since 2013 and he has been under physical surveillance by the authorities.

Front Line Defenders expresses its concern at the arrest of Yiğit Aksakoğlu and the criminal investigation against 13 human rights defenders as it believes that they are solely linked to their legitimate and peaceful work in defence of human rights.

18 November 2018
Police operation against civil society and academics

On 16 November 2018, around 6 AM, 13 human rights defenders including academics and prominent civil society actors were taken into custody in simultaneous police operations in İstanbul, Adana, Antalya and Muğla. According to the police department, 13 human rights defenders were taken into custody “for their activities in a hierarchical structure led by Osman Kavala”, a prominent philanthropist who has been in pre-trial detention over a year. The detained human rights defenders include civil society actors affiliated with Anadolu Kültür, a civil society organisations led by Osman Kavala. The arrest warrant was initially issued against 20 people while 13 has been taken into custody so far.

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Detained human rights defenders are Prof. Dr. Betül Tanbay, faculty member of the Department of Mathematics at Boğaziçi University, member of Academics for Peace and Deputy Chair of the European Mathematical Society; Prof. Dr. Turgut Tarhanlı, Dean of the Faculty of Law of İstanbul Bilgi University and Professor of Human Rights Law; Yiğit Ali Ekmekçi, Deputy Chair of Anadolu Kültür Executive Board; Ali Hakan Altınay, Anadolu Kültür Executive Board member; Asena Günal, General Coordinator of Anadolu Kültür İstanbul Office; Meltem Aslan, former Director General of Anadolu Kültür and Co-Director of Truth Justice Memory Center; Çiğdem Mater, film producer and consultant at Anadolu Kültür; Yiğit Aksakoğlu, former staff member of İstanbul Bilgi University’s NGO Research and Training Unit; Hande Özhabeş, former staff member of Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, Bora Sarı, Ayşegül Güzel, Filiz Telek and Yusuf Cıvır.

In the early morning of 16 November 2018, police carried out simultaneous raids at various addresses in İstanbul, Adana, Antalya and Muğla. So far, 13 human rights defenders, including academics and prominent civil society actors, have been taken into custody while the arrest warrant was issued against 20 people. The human rights defenders have been held at Vatan Police Department to be questioned by the prosecutor. Çiğdem Mater is the only one who has been held in Kaş Police Department and will be transferred to İstanbul later on 16 November. Following their questioning, they may be released or referred to the court after the weekend.

According to the information note issued by the police department, the human rights defenders were detained as part of an investigation into prominent philanthropist Osman Kavala and the civil society organisations affiliated with him, namely Anadolu Kültür and Açık Toplum Vakfı. He was accused of “attempting to overthrow the government by force by supporting the Gezi Park Protests in 2013 to spread chaos and disorder at the national level”. In the information note, it was alleged that the human rights defenders, in coordination with Osman Kavala, had organised meetings to promote and generalise the Gezi Park Protests, brought professional protestors, trainers and facilitators from abroad to focus on issues like civil disobedience and peaceful protesting in order to keep the Gezi Park Protests ongoing, participated in the creation of new media sources in order to influence the public opinion about the existing and future protests, and met with Western organisations and individuals to ban the sale of tear gas to Turkey.

Front Line Defenders expresses its concern at the detention of 13 human rights defenders and the ongoing criminal investigation against them as it believes that they are solely linked to their legitimate and peaceful work in defence of human rights.