As retrial opens, Turkish court keeps philanthropist in jail

ISTANBUL (AP) — A Turkish court ruled Friday to keep a leading philanthropist behind bars during his retrial over accusations that he organized and financed mass antigovernment protests in 2013. Human rights groups have denounced the case as being politically motivated.

Businessman and civil rights activist Osman Kavala has been jailed in Turkey for more than three years despite not having been convicted of a crime. He is on trial again with 15 other defendants, charged with attempting to overthrow the government through the nationwide demonstrations that started at Istanbul’s Gezi Park.

Kavala and eight of the defendants were cleared of the charges in February 2020, but an appeals court overturned their acquittals earlier this year. Seven of the defendants, including journalist Can Dundar and actor Mehmet Ali Alabora, have left Turkey and are being tried in absentia, after they were added to the case for the retrial.

Kavala, 63, also is charged with espionage and attempting to overthrow the government in connection with a failed military coup in 2016. He has denied all the accusations, and faces a life term in prison without parole, if convicted.

Kavala, who has been in custody since October 2017, is known for his support of the arts and his funding of projects promoting cultural diversity and minority rights. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused him of being the “Turkish leg” of billionaire U.S. philanthropist George Soros, whom Erdogan alleges has been behind insurrections in many countries.

Kavala addressed the court by videoconference Friday from a prison in the outskirts of Istanbul. He called on the court to uphold the previous decision to acquit him and other defendants.

“Despite the fact that there is no evidence against me, that I was acquitted, and despite the (European Court of Human Rights’) ruling concerning the violation of my rights, I am being held in jail to keep alive the perception that I planned, managed and financed the Gezi protests,” he said in a statement in response to the decision to keep in custody.

Human rights groups have denounced the proceedings against him as unjust and have called for his release. The European Court of Human Rights ordered Kavala’s release in December 2019, but Turkey has yet to implement that decision.

The 2013 protests were organized to oppose the planned development of a shopping mall on the site of the small park in central Istanbul. The demonstrations soon grew into a nationwide protest against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time.

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