From Turkey’s purchase of Russian missiles to tensions over Cyprus and Syria, strategic and regional disputes have brought U.S.–Turkish relations to a low point. But Turkey’s domestic repression and democratic degradation are hardly incidental to these tensions—indeed, they are woven into the fabric of the larger crisis. In one of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s most worrying attacks on civil society yet, 16 civil rights leaders, civic activists, journalists, artists, architects, and actors have been on trial since June 24, absurdly accused of trying to incite a government overthrow during the Gezi Protests six years ago. The charges are baseless. If convicted, the defendants—some of the leading lights of Turkey’s civil society—face life in prison for legitimate, peaceful activities. Thursday, July 18, marks the next session of this blatant show trial. Even as the United States and Turkey grapple with an array of strategic questions, Congress must speak out to ensure that freedom of association and the rule of law in Turkey are not forgotten.

The Gezi protests erupted in May 2013, when Erdoğan’s government, already facing popular discontent over its rising authoritarian tendencies, cronyism, and corruption, announced that it would demolish Gezi Park, one of the last green areas in central Istanbul, to build a new state development that included a shopping mall. When environmentalists protested, they were beaten and tear-gassed. The brutality sparked peaceful demonstrations that drew millions across Turkey. The government responded with truncheons, rubber bullets, and so much tear gas that animals died of suffocation. The violent crackdown shocked Turks and hastened Turkey’s slide toward authoritarianism.

Since then, Erdoğan has tried to rewrite the history of the Gezi protests, to date the largest popular mobilization against his ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party, into a foreign plot. State officials, and the pro-government media, claimed that “foreign enemies” such as the United States, the “interest rate lobby,” and, naturally, “the Jewish Lobby” instigated the demonstrations. A senior Erdoğan advisor even claimed that Gezi was the result of a “telekinetic attack.” Yes, really.

The formal indictment is only slightly less fanciful, claiming that leading philanthropist Osman Kavala financed a plot backed by George Soros and the Open Society Foundations to overthrow the government as part of a global conspiracy. The accused also include journalist Can Dündar, architect and civil society leader Mücella Yapıcı, Gökçe Tüylüoğlu, former Turkey representative of the Open Society Foundations, and Yiğit Aksakaloğlu, who works for a Dutch NGO. Needless to say, the accusations are without evidence.

As in other political trials in Turkey, the Gezi prosecutors have not bothered to create a convincing conspiracy narrative. Instead, the indictment is a hodgepodge of guilt by association and non-sequiturs, including YouTube videos of protests and interviews, transcripts of random telephone conversations, and assorted newspaper articles that offer no clear connection to the matter at hand. The gimcrack document not only proves nothing, it barely makes an effort at proving anything. In a fair judicial system, the case would be thrown out in minutes.

But, especially after facing down a coup attempt three years ago, Erdoğan has politicized the judicial system, purging judges and replacing them with underqualified jurists whose chief qualification is AKP loyalty. Cases like Gezi, aimed at harassing and intimidating peaceful activism of all sorts, have become commonplace. And, as extra punishment for real or alleged dissent, the judiciary has been using pre-trial detentions, which often last for months or years and sometimes do not even include formal charges. In the Gezi case, defendant Aksakaloğlu was held for seven months and only released on June 25; Kavala, locked up more than 600 days ago, remains behind bars.

The post-coup repression has many other facets. The government has summarily closed more than a thousand civil society organizations and arrested tens of thousands of people on political charges. New arrests occur almost daily. A few weeks ago, Canan Kaftancıoğlu, a leading figure in Turkey’s main opposition party, was dragged into court on terror charges for her tweets. On trial this week are Amnesty International officials, journalists, and a University of California at Davis history professor, all of whom are in court facing similarly spurious terror charges. Credible allegations of the torture of detainees continues to emerge. Turkey’s purge may have fallen from Western headlines, but it has not ended. The Gezi trial is at the center of this ugly process; many in Turkey fear that it may portend an even broader crackdown as Erdoğan lashes out after his Istanbul electoral loss.

The State Department has expressed “grave concerns” about the Gezi trial, but it is evident that the White House will not take a stand, especially after the friendly tone of President Trump’s June 29 meeting with Erdoğan. It is up to Congress to condemn the unjust Gezi prosecution, the detention of Osman Kavala, and the wider repression. As Turkey and the United States attempt to work through deep divides on Cyprus, Syria, and Russian missiles, with the Gezi trial set to resume tomorrow, Congress should make clear that civil society, due process, and basic freedoms in Turkey are important to the bilateral relationship and will not be forgotten.


Howard Eissenstat is a nonresident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and an associate professor of Middle East History at St. Lawrence University.

Photo: Osman Kavala /

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