The case began against a backdrop of concerns about growing authoritarianism in Turkey, where tens of thousands have been arrested in a crackdown on dissent since a failed military coup targeting Erdogan in 2016.
The Gezi demonstrations in the summer of 2013 started as a protest against the redevelopment of a park in Istanbul, a city with limited green space, and quickly spread across the country.
Erdogan at the time dismissed the idea that the protests were environmentally motivated, saying they aimed to topple his government. The defendants deny the charges against them.
Kavala launched his defense on Monday in the court in Silivri, a town west of Istanbul and the site of Turkey’s largest prison, where he has been held on remand since 2017.
“The accusation for which I have been imprisoned for the past 20 months is based on a series of claims that have no factual basis and defy logic,” Kavala told the court.
The huge courtroom was packed with about 100 lawyers, along with MPs and supporters of the defendants, who clapped and shouted as Kavala was led out of the room after the morning session. Riot police stood outside.
The indictment calls for life sentences without parole for the defendants, who are accused of attempting to overthrow the government and financing the protests among other charges.
The European Union said that by seeking life sentences, prosecutors were creating a climate of fear in Turkey. The U.S. State Department has said Washington is gravely concerned.
In a joint statement, German Commissioner for Human Rights Barbel Kofler and French Ambassador for Human Rights Francois Croquette described the start of Kavala’s trial as a “dark day” for Turkish civil society.
“A strong Turkey needs more, and not less, voices of his caliber. It does not need the intimidation and criminalization of critical thinkers, but rather the courage to engage in social dialogue,” they said.
Kavala is accused of spreading the protests through his organization, Anadolu Kultur, which promotes culture and human rights. A second defendant, Yigit Aksakoglu, was jailed pending trial last November.
“I don’t exactly know what crime I have committed,” said Aksakoglu. “This is the first indictment I have seen. If all indictments are like this, pity our legal system. If just our indictment is like this, pity us.”
Erdogan, now Turkey’s powerful executive president after constitutional changes, and his cabinet of the time are all plaintiffs in the case. The indictment names 746 people as injured parties in the nationwide protests and holds the defendants responsible for all injuries and damage to property.
Authorities acquitted several of the defendants in a 2015 case also related to the Gezi protests. One them now facing this new trial, Mucella Yapici, said she had read the same defense she read during the previous trial.
“If a penal case is to be opened against me in five years time for the same reasons, I’ll read this again. If I write something new, that would mean I accept this indictment that is not based on facts,” she said.
Erdogan equates the Gezi protesters with Kurdish militants and those accused of launching the attempted coup in 2016. About 77,000 people have been jailed since then in a crackdown which Turkey says is a necessary response to security threats.
The remaining defense testimony will be heard on Tuesday.