By The Washington Post · Kareem Fahim · WORLD, MIDDLE-EAST
The activists, including Osman Kavala, a prominent philanthropist, were accused of instigating the 2013 Gezi Park protests that began as a sit-in in Istanbul opposing a plan to build a shopping mall and grew into nationwide protests against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then prime minister.
A judge read the verdicts, clearing nine of the 16 defendants and ordering the release of Kavala, the only one imprisoned, as applause broke out in a packed courtroom in Siliviri, west of Istanbul, according to a journalist who was present.
Prosecutors retained the right to appeal the acquittals. It was not immediately clear whether seven additional defendants who were tried in absentia would face any further legal action.
The Gezi trial, as the case came to be known, was closely watched as a test of Turkey's political climate at a moment when the government is clamping down on enemies and political opponents, and as critics have accused Erdogan of strengthening his influence over Turkey's judiciary.
The crackdown accelerated after a coup attempt in 2016. The authorities have arrested thousands of followers of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Muslim cleric accused of masterminding the failed coup. Thousands of other people the government linked to the Gulen movement were dismissed from their jobs.
The dragnet reached beyond Gulen's followers and included members of opposition political parties, journalists, university professors, civil society activists and others.
The defendants in the Gezi trial included filmmakers and an early childhood development specialist, an architect and urban planners.
A 657-page government indictment accused the defendants of inciting the protests with the backing of George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist. The indictment cast the Gezi demonstrations as part of a vast conspiracy: linked to international protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and the precursor to the 2016 coup attempt.
Kavala, the most prominent defendant in the case, founded Anadolu Kultur, an organization that promotes diversity, culture and human rights. He had been in custody since November 2017, enduring a long pre-trial detention that drew criticism from human rights groups around the world. In December, the European Court of Human Rights said in a ruling that Turkish authorities had provided insufficient evidence for his continued detention and ordered that he be released.
"We really were not expecting this," Can Atalay, a lawyer and one the defendants told reporters after the verdict.
"What can we say? We can hope that things will change for the better," he said.