ISTANBUL (AP) — Dozens of football fans who took part in last year's mass anti-government protests went on trial on Tuesday accused of an attempted coup, in a case seen as the latest example of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's crackdown on dissent.
Thirty-five fans, including members of Carsi — a die-hard Besiktas fan group — could face life in prison if convicted of charges of trying to "remove the government" through the use of "violence and force."
Erdogan has portrayed the mass protests denouncing his rule in June 2013 as a conspiracy to bring down the government.
The trial opened as Turkey has come under heavy international criticism for the detentions this week of journalists, TV producers and scriptwriters affiliated with a movement led by a U.S.-based Muslim cleric which has become Erdogan's strongest critic.
In the opening hearing, court officials read from the prosecutors' indictment which accuses the football fans of trying to seize hold of Erdogan's offices in Ankara and Istanbul and of projecting an image of a weak government and an "Arab Spring"-like government change.
The Carsi group fans played a prominent role during the protests and were hailed as heroes for coming up with humorous slogans, distributing gas masks or providing first aid to injured protesters. But they were also criticized for seizing a heavy construction machine and driving it toward Erdogan's office in Istanbul.
Hundreds of soccer fans, including supporters of teams that are Besiktas' arch-rivals, gathered outside the courthouse in Istanbul in a show of solidarity for the defendants, chanting Besiktas songs and slogans. The trial was moved to a bigger courtroom because the designated room was too small to accommodate the spectators and more than 100 lawyers defending the suspects.
Human Rights Watch called the football fans' prosecution on charges of plotting a coup 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," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher for the New York-based group.
The anti-government protests erupted across Turkey in June 2013, sparked by opposition to the government's plan to redevelop Gezi Park adjacent to Istanbul's main Taksim square.