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Leading Turkish activist denies funding protests to overthrow government

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By Ali Kucukgocmen

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – A Turkish businessman and activist, whose trial over accusations he tried to overthrow the government has been criticised by Western countries, denied on Tuesday he had funded and organised the protests six years ago.

Osman Kavala and 15 co-defendants, including civil society figures, writers and actors, could face life in prison over charges that they were behind protests six years ago to halt development of Istanbul’s Gezi park.

Rights groups, opposition politicians and Western governments say the case is a test of how far Erdogan will go in muzzling dissent. The government says the protests were a plot to topple President Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister at the time.

The indictment says Kavala had discussed bringing milk, juice and pastries to Gezi, as well as gasmasks to counter the effects of tear gas, which showed he was financing the protests.

Asked in court about the evidence, Kavala said he had bought pastries and some doctor’s masks for the protests, but “believed that these masks would be used by the young people in the park for peaceful goals”.

“During the Gezi protests, the tear gas from around the area was also affecting Gezi Park,” he said.

Kavala, a prominent businessman and civil rights figure who has been active in liberal causes, sat on the board at the time of the Turkish branch of financier George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. He said the charity had not provided any financial support to the protests.

The court set Dec. 24-25 as the date for the next hearing in the case and remanded Kavala to jail during the trial. The trial began in June against a backdrop of concern 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 says the environmental protests were cover for an attempt to dislodge the government from power.

(Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun)

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