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Conspiracy Trial for Turkish Football Fans Begins

Cheering fans of the Besiktas soccer team gather around a fire outside a courthouse as a trial of dozens of football fans proceeds inside in Istanbul, Dec. 16, 2014.

Hundreds of people chanted football slogans Tuesday outside Istanbul’s main courthouse, showing their support for 35 Turkish football supporters on trial for plotting a coup.

The overwhelming majority of those accused belong to a raucous group known as the Carsi, which supports Istanbul’s Besiktas club. Many Carsi members played a prominent role in last year’s anti-government protests, known as the Gezi movement, which was aimed at then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is now president.

Erdogan insists the Gezi protests had little to do with democratic demonstrations, but were a conspiracy aided by foreign powers.

If found guilty, the defendants face up to 30 years in a maximum-security prison.

Among those protesting the case Tuesday was the deputy chairman of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, Sezgin Tanrikulu.

"We are here with Carsi's courage and heart," he said. "I am telling you now that this indictment is null and avoid." He argued that the justice system is used as "the stick" of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

The case has drawn national attention, and more than 100 attorneys are representing the defendants. The first day of the hearing ended in chaos with the courtroom being too small for the defendants and their lawyers, and the judges refusing calls for a larger room.

Concerns over the legitimacy of the case are continuing to grow, with much of the prosecution evidence relying on text messages and mobile phone conversations. Human Rights Watch's Emma Sinclair-Webb said she was alarmed at the weakness of the case.

"This court case is one of the most ludicrous court cases we have seen in Turkey’s recent history," she said. "It is a complete travesty of justice. There is no evidence in the indictment that could in any way support charges for attempting a coup against these individuals.

"This trial absolutely exemplifies the way in which the government and Erdogan are putting enormous pressure on the judiciary, and that trials are being opened at Erdogan’s behest," said Sinclair-Webb.

The European Union, which Turkey is seeking to join, has also voiced concern over the increasing government control of the judiciary.

This latest prosecution of government opponents comes as Ankara is facing international criticism for Sunday’s police raids of leading media establishments, part of another coup conspiracy probe.

Erdogan has dismissed that criticism. But observers warn pressure on Turkey is likely to continue as the number of conspiracy cases rises, adding fuel to opponents' accusations that the country is sliding toward authoritarianism.