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Turkish football fans put on trial over 'coup bid'

17 December 2014, 11:35

Istanbul - Thirty-five supporters of Turkish top-flight football side Besiktas went on trial Tuesday facing life imprisonment on charges of seeking to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government in 2013 protests.

Hundreds of Besiktas supporters staged a raucous protest outside the Istanbul criminal court, shouting football chants backing the accused, who are all members of the club's main fan club, the Carsi Group.

Prosecutors have accused all 35 of seeking to stage a coup to overthrow the government of Erdogan, who was then prime minister, during the unprecedented protests against his rule last year.

However rights groups have ridiculed the charges as absurdly flimsy and based on tendentious evidence such as intercepted telephone calls and text messages merely criticising the government.

"Charging these Besiktas football club fans as enemies of the state for joining a public protest is a ludicrous travesty," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Prosecutors have demanded life sentences for the accused, who are not currently under arrest and who entered court through a side door.

The supporters surrounding the court brandished Besitkas football scarves in the club's black-and-white colours and let off flares.

The indictment says the Carsi members tried to make the protests look like the "Arab Spring" by providing the foreign media with images of clashes.

As well as seeking to stage a coup, they have also been charged with acting as a criminal gang and resisting police.

 'About freedom, not football'

The judge opened the trial by reading out the long list of defendants and then the charges, with supporters laughing loudly as every charge was read out, an AFP correspondent said.

One of the defendants, Cem Yakiskan was told by the judge he was accused of encouraging people to take to the streets and also -- bizarrely -- of organising a pizza order for the protesters.

"The allegations are baseless, wrong and have nothing to do with me. It is my democratic right to ask for tangible evidence and only after that I can counter these claims," he told the court.

He quipped: "If we had been capable of staging a coup, we would have made Besiktas (league) champions!" Besiktas have not won the title since 2009.

Defence lawyer Efkan Bolac said the charges were unlawful and all the supporters had done was to counter attacks by police.

"We don't have any laws in place that say staging a protest amounts to a coup attempt."

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The case has angered opponents of Erdogan who accuse him of showing ever greater authoritarian tendencies since becoming president in August.

Many posted statements of support on Twitter under the hashtag #Carsiyalnizdegildir (The Carsi is not alone).

"I'm a Galatasaray fan, but Carsi is something different," said Sevin Duru, 31, outside the court, referring to Besiktas' arch Istanbul rivals.

"It is not about football, it is about freedom."

The trial was adjourned until April 2, 2015.

The anti-government protests began in May 2013 in Istanbul over plans to redevelop Gezi Park on Taksim Square in the centre of the city.

But they then snowballed into a nationwide wave of anger against the Islamic-rooted rule of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

At least eight protesters were killed and 8,000 injured in a bloody police crackdown.

The oldest football club in Turkey, founded in 1903, Besiktas is still one of the top sides and plays in the top division Super Lig.

They will play English side Liverpool in the next round of the Europa League -- Europe's second tier competition -- in February.

The Carsi fan group is known for its strong support of the secularist principles laid down by modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as well for its left-wing politics.

The T-shirts of the Carsi (pronounced Charshi and meaning marketplace in Turkish) are adorned with the circular anarchist symbol. The group likes to boast that it is "against everything".

Several trials related to the protests are already taking place across the country as well as a handful of cases of police accused of killing protesters.

More than two dozen alleged leaders of Taksim Solidarity -- the main activist group behind the protests -- went on trial in June, also facing lengthy prison terms for their part in leading the protests.



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