More than two dozen anti-government protesters go on trial in Turkey

ISTANBUL (AFP) - More than two dozen anti-government protesters went on trial on Thursday in Turkey, accused of organising last year's demonstrations, in what Amnesty International denounced as a "show trial".

An Istanbul court began hearing the case against 26 members of the Taksim Solidarity umbrella group, who are accused of leading the protests that erupted in June 2013 and posed the biggest challenge yet to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's 11-year rule.

The activists, who include doctors, architects and engineers, face charges including founding a crime syndicate, violating public order and organising illegal protests through social media and face up to 29 years if convicted.

Last June's protests started as a small environmentalist movement to stop the re-development of Istanbul's Gezi Park and quickly blew up into wider nationwide demonstrations against Erdogan's authoritarian style that left at least eight people dead and some 8,000 injured after police brutally cracked down on protesters.

Amnesty International urged the Turkish authorities to abandon what it called a "show trial".

"This is a vindictive, politically motivated show trial without a shred of evidence of actual crimes. It should be stopped at the first hearing," Mr Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International's researcher on Turkey, said in a statement.

"The prosecution has concocted a case simply to send a strong message to the rest of Turkey that the authorities will ruthlessly pursue anyone who dissents and organises protests against government policies."

The activist group was formed in 2012 after the government announced plans to redevelop Gezi Park, one of the last remaining green spaces in central Istanbul, and neighbouring Taksim Square, the country's most symbolic rallying point.

The group met Mr Erdogan at the height of the unrest to discuss the protesters' demands, only to be accused by the premier of being "traitors" aiming to destabilise the government.

Mucella Yapici, 63, general secretary of Istanbul Chamber of Architects is one of the key accused. She told AFP she was briefly detained by the police, who stripped her naked and deprived her of medication for a range of chronic illnesses.

But she said she was not afraid to spend the rest of her life behind bars.

"I've lived a full life. It doesn't matter where I spend the rest of it when you consider that a 14-year-old boy has been killed," she said ahead of the trial, referring to Berkin Elvan, who died of injuries sustained during the unrest.

Her lawyer Turgut Kazan told AFP there was not enough evidence that a criminal organisation had been formed.

"There is only one sentence in the indictment that suggests why my client is being accused of founding a crime organisation: 'Because she came together with other people'," he said.

Also on trial is Ali Cerkezoglu, secretary-general of the Istanbul Medical Chamber, who treated several wounded protesters.

In January, Turkey passed a new law making it a crime for doctors to provide emergency first aid without a permit, which critics said was an attempt to block doctors from treating protesters.

Several trials related to the protests are already taking place across the country, but Thursday's trial has the highest profile.

"The only goal of this case is to scare people. Prosecutors hand-picked a person from each social group with the aim of putting them in jail. They want to show that anyone, regardless of their age, profession or background, can be prosecuted for being a protester," said Mr Baki Boga of the Human Rights Association Turkey.

"This is a politically-motivated case aimed at completely wiping out the dissenting voices in Turkey."

The government did not go ahead with the plans to demolish the park, but it has become a site of frequent clashes between police and protesters. Dozens were injured on the anniversary of last year's protest on May 31.

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