By Ece Toksabay
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Thirty-five Turkish soccer fans went on trial on Tuesday accused of attempting to stage a coup during mass protests last year, in a case the opposition and rights groups say is an abuse of the justice system by a government bent on revenge.
Prosecutors are seeking life sentences for all of them, from a supporters' group of major Istanbul team Besiktas. They are accused of helping organize the protests that erupted in Istanbul's Taksim square in May 2013 and grew into a major challenge to then-Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan, who won a presidential election in August, has vowed to hunt down the "traitors" behind the protests and a corruption scandal which emerged just over six months later, both of which he cast as an orchestrated bid to topple him.
The trial began two days after Turkey drew international criticism for the detention by police of prominent media figures in what Erdogan said was a response to "dirty operations" by his political enemies.
The indictment accuses the soccer fans of seeking to occupy Erdogan's Istanbul office near the Besiktas stadium "to create the appearance that a weakness of authority had emerged in the country", and of drawing foreign media to the protest areas.
"They tried to create an image evoking government changes in some Middle Eastern countries known as the 'Arab Spring' and aimed to overthrow the legally established government of the Turkish Republic using illegal methods," the indictment said.
The 'Carsi' supporters group played a prominent role in the protests, which drew a diverse crowd of hundreds of thousands across Turkey. An anti-police slogan chanted at matches rang out regularly and at one point Carsi members commandeered a mechanical digger and drove it toward police lines.
The unrest began as a peaceful protest against the demolition of Gezi Park, a leafy corner of Taksim, but spread nationwide after a brutal police crackdown. Prosecutors have since launched a series of court cases against those involved.
"The make-up of the AK Party government has run and its true face has emerged. The Carsi trial is the revenge for Gezi," said Umut Oran, an Istanbul MP for the main opposition CHP, whose members ripped up a copy of the indictment outside the court.
MEATBALLS AND PIZZA
Government officials have repeatedly said the judiciary is independent and that criminal elements among the protesters must be brought to justice. At least six protesters and one police officer died and thousands of people were hurt in the unrest.
In their indictment, prosecutors cited the seizure of gas masks, flares and hand guns as evidence against the soccer fans. They also cited payment arranged by one defendant for meatballs and pizza "for individuals in the protest area".
"This is the world's funniest court case where a football fan group is accused of trying to stage a coup to overthrow the government. Of course this has no logic," prominent journalist and Besiktas fan Ridvan Akar told Reuters.
Hundreds of police backed by water cannon trucks imposed tight security at Istanbul's palace of justice as the case began.
"Shoulder-to-shoulder against fascism," chanted hundreds of soccer fans, some from rival clubs. A few lit flares and some held up banners, one reading: 'Carsi will never walk alone'. Trade unionists, politicians and activists were among the crowd.
Advocacy group Human Rights Watch said the prosecution was a "blatant misuse of the criminal justice system".
"Charging these Besiktas football club fans as enemies of the state for joining a public protest is a ludicrous travesty," HRW Turkey researcher Emma Sinclair-Webb said in a statement.
"It reveals a great deal about the enormous pressure being exerted on Turkey’s justice system by the government," she said, calling for the prosecutor to ask the court for an acquittal.
(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Giles Elgood)