ISTANBUL — A Turkish court on Thursday acquitted nine people accused of participation in a 2015 anti-government protest in the city of İstanbul, judicial officials said, in a verdict that came as the opposition and human rights groups have called for Turkey’s European Union membership talks to be halted.
The acquittal, amid rumors that the indictment might be dropped, is likely to fuel Turkey’s already strained relations with the European Union, which is already cracking down on perceived human rights violations in Turkey.
The ruling follows a statement from a prosecutor on Monday suggesting that charges of participation in an unauthorized assembly or conspiring against the government, as well as a charge of provoking an event, would be dropped. The prosecutors’ statement, filed ahead of a Feb. 19 hearing, appeared to be an attempt to secure approval for their earlier decision to arrest defendants outside the court in the case, which would have halted hearings, CNN Turk reported.
Turkish prosecutors are known for their prosecutorial zeal, having declared hundreds of politically affiliated accounts to be terrorist organizations in recent years. The existence of large numbers of those accounts has left Turkey’s pro-Western allies concerned about the government’s direction and its commitment to human rights.
Nine people, including university professors, lawyers and artists, were arrested during the Oct. 25, 2015, protests, which were taken up by protesters protesting Turkey’s moves to expand government control over the judiciary and media. The judge of the İstanbul court acquitted them Thursday, the judicial officials said.
The judges, judges from Turkey’s Kurdish region and international judges were selected for the trial. In November, the defendants were acquitted of charges of planning to overthrow the government, accusing the charges of being politically motivated. A court in Istanbul last year approved 3,288 suspects to be tried on charges of plotting against the government. A court in another court, in Adana province, found another 25 defendants guilty of inciting an event.
An Istanbul court in January, for the first time in a high-profile case, decided to dismiss the prosecution’s indictment for what it said was politically motivated prosecution. That decision came after political leaders and prominent activists, including Amnesty International’s secretary general, Salil Shetty, campaigned for the suspect’s release and decried the prosecution’s investigation as a crackdown on Turkey’s pro-Western political opposition.
The prosecution of human rights activists and more than 100 other suspects has been particularly acrimonious. Scores have already been released, and others have been acquitted. They include Amnesty International’s executive director, Salil Shetty, and 11 other human rights defenders. They have been arrested, though not convicted, for allegedly planning to overthrow the government.
The dismissals followed a call for the cases to be dropped from the Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yıldırım, who said he believed the authorities had “no intention of strengthening the human rights organizations” that the protesters had been accused of trying to topple.
Shetty condemned Thursday’s court decision, saying in a statement that the acquittal was “a cynical whitewash at a time when we should all be asking hard questions about why our democratic freedoms have been being dismantled.”
Last week, Kaya Şahin, the 24-year-old human rights activist who was first held on Jan. 9, was cleared of all charges of organizing an unapproved assembly, after prosecutors initially charged her with acting as a member of a terrorist organization. Şahin, a Kurdish student, had been carrying a sign in the August 2015 protests that read “there is no state,” words commonly seen among protesters. Şahin has said the sign’s protest was not against the government but rather against a widespread campaign by Kurdish and leftist youth to dismantle Turkey’s rule of law.
At the time of the protests, however, Şahin’s prosecution was seen as the actions of a government trying to use security measures, reportedly by temporarily closing every main subway station in İstanbul, to take over the city as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to exercise heightened control over the judiciary and media.