A Turkish court has acquitted businessman Osman Kavala and eight other defendants over their alleged role in Gezi Park protests of 2013 in Istanbul.
Applause erupted in the court on Tuesday as Kavala was ordered to be released after more than two years in jail.
The court decision came at the maximum-security Silivri prison outside Istanbul months after the European Court of Human Rights in December called for Kavala’s immediate release saying there was a lack of reasonable suspicion that he had committed an offence.
In 2013, hundreds of thousands had marched in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey against plans to build a replica Ottoman barracks on Istanbul’s Gezi Park, which later transformed into anti-government protests. It was a major challenge for then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is now Turkey’s president.
Eight young protesters and a police officer were killed, and 5,000 were injured, in the unrest.
Kavala and two other defendants had been facing life sentences without parole, while the other defendants were accused of aiding them in attempting to overthrow the government by organising the protests. They had denied the allegations.
At one point in the hearing, police scuffled in the court with defence lawyers who attempted to prevent them forcibly removing a lawyer who had repeatedly requested permission to speak.
The case of seven further defendants, who are abroad and were being tried in absentia, was separated but arrest warrants for them were lifted. They were also expected to be acquitted.
Critics of Erdogan’s government have questioned the independence of Turkish courts, especially since a crackdown following a failed coup in 2016. Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development (AK Party) say the judiciary makes independent decisions.
In his defence, Kavala had stressed the European Court of Human Rights decision demanding his immediate release and had described as a “conspiratorial fiction” the idea that the protests were an attempt to overthrow the government.
A court previously acquitted people prosecuted over the 2013 protests, with a judge ruling in 2015 they were exercising the right of freedom of assembly.
But in 2017, Kavala was arrested and the following year police arrested the other 15 defendants including civil society figures, writers and actors.
The prosecution was a part of the crackdown that Turkey says is necessary on security grounds. It has involved widespread purges of the armed forces, ministries and state organisations.
Since the attempted 2016 coup, approximately 80,000 people have been jailed pending trial and 150,000 civil servants, military personnel and others have been sacked or suspended.