Turkey acquits all leaders of 2013 mass protests against Erdogan
ISTANBUL - A Turkish court on Wednesday acquitted more than two dozen activists who helped launch mass protests in 2013 against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after a trial slammed by rights campaigners.
The 26 suspects are all leaders of Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group of civil society, union and political groups at the forefront of the May-June 2013 demonstrations that marked the biggest challenge yet to the dominance of the ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The activists, including doctors, architects and engineers, had been charged with setting up a crime syndicate, violating public order and organising illegal protests through social media. They faced years in prison.
"All of us were acquitted," Mucella Yapici, one of the leaders, said. "It was an absurd case which meant to declare Taksim Solidarity a criminal organisation."
The suspects went on trial at an Istanbul court in June 2014 a year after the protests, which started as a small environmental battle to save Gezi Park -- one of the few green spots in the country's mega city.
The protests snowballed into a nationwide wave of anger against Erdogan, then prime minister, and were ultimately put down by the police.
Rights campaigners had called for the charges to be dropped, with Amnesty International calling the hearing a "politically motivated show trial".
Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter after the court order that for the government the acquittals were "unimportant".
"Seeing critics stand trial is a means to discredit and harass them," she said.
Suspects at the hearing defended their involvement in the group.
"It is an honour for me to be a leader of an organisation in this case," Beyza Metin told the court, according to the private Dogan news agency.
"There is no violence in the activities of Taksim Solidarity," she said.
Erdogan has repeatedly condemned the protesters as "terrorists" who sought to undermine the state and warned that the government will take a tough line against street unrest.
The acquittals come two days ahead of the May 1 labour day holiday which in Turkey is traditionally marked by protests which in the past have often led to clashes with police.
This year will be the first May 1 marked since the government pushed controversial legislation through parliament giving the security forces greater powers to crack down on protests.