ISTANBUL - In a dramatic move, Turkish prosecutors issued a detention order for prominent philanthropist Osman Kavala, just hours after an Istanbul court had acquitted him on charges of sedition.
Kavala's acquittal on sedition charges Tuesday was met with euphoria by rights groups seeing it as a watershed moment for human rights and judicial independence in Turkey. Kavala and eight other defendants were acquitted on all charges for a "lack of concrete evidence."
But as family and supporters waited for hours outside Istanbul's Silivri prison to welcome Kavala into freedom after over two and half years in pre-trial detention, they quickly left after news of the new detention order.
In a statement, Istanbul prosecutors said the detention order for Kavala was in connection to an investigation into the 2016 failed coup in Turkey. The statement also said an appeal against Kavala's acquittal would be made.
Kavala's detention drew swift condemnation.
"This is a vindictive and lawless move, further demonstrating that Turkey's justice system is under tight political control," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Prosecutors pushed tough sentences
Prosecutors had sought sentences of up to life in prison without parole.
Arrest warrants for seven defendants who had left the country and were tried in absentia have been lifted.
"We are startled," defendant Can Atalay said, reacting shortly after his acquittal outside Istanbul Silivri prison where the trial was held.
"We are hoping that something will change for the better in our country, and that is, of course, our struggle," Atalay added to applauding supporters.
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu of the opposition CHP was quick to praise the verdict, tweeting, "The acquittal of all the defendants in the #GeziPark trial is a true source of joy and restores trust in the Turkish judicial system. I salute all those who stand to defend our city's history, culture, and nature."
Human rights groups weigh in
Amnesty International Turkey researcher Andrew Gardener praised the verdict.
"If you look at the whole process of the trial and case, and to end in a just way is as surprising as it's welcome. Obviously, it doesn't erase the past two-and-a-half years. To be imprisoned when there is overwhelming evidence of his innocence is unforgivable," Gardener said.
The trial has been widely condemned as an attempt to silence dissent in Turkey's broader civil society. In December, the European Court of Human Rights ruled the case was politically motivated, and called for Kavala's immediate release.
The Istanbul court called for Kavala's immediate release, but Istanbul prosecutors were already preparing a new detention order against the philanthropist.
The defendants faced charges of supporting and organizing the 2013 nationwide anti-government protests against then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is now president.
The protests were called the "Gezi Movement" named after a small park in central Istanbul, where the unrest began against plans to redevelop the area into a shopping mall.
Tuesday's verdict took defendants and their supporters by surprise.
"The evidence is vague, witnesses are controversial, and the verdict is pre-ordered. They trashed the law," Atalay tweeted shortly before the verdict.
Defense lawyers were denied the right to cross-examine anonymous witnesses of the prosecution and to see some of the evidence.
Erdogan has strongly supported Kavala's prosecution, which critics saw as an attempt to intimidate wider Turkish civil society. Analysts point out the trial was also crucial to the Turkish president's narrative that Gezi was a conspiracy against him rather than a grassroots popular uprising.
"What does this verdict mean? It means that Gezi cannot be put on trial. This verdict proves you cannot put Gezi on trial," said acquitted defendant Mucella Yapici, who along with Kavala and Yigit Aksakoglu, was facing life in prison without parole
From thrilled to chilled
Initial jubilation has been replaced with shock and anger among many rights activists, as news spread of Kavala's new detention. "Judicial cruelty" is trending across Turkish social media.
Ankara was facing mounting international pressure over the trial — in particular from the EU. That pressure is predicted to increase over Kavala's latest detention.
Brussels reportedly warned Ankara that future assistance could be at risk if the trial ended with convictions. Turkey is looking for billions of dollars in new aid to deal with an expected new exodus of Syrian refugees.
Turkey's judiciary will face further scrutiny Wednesday with the anticipated conclusion of a separate trial of prominent human rights activists.
Taner Kilic, former Turkey head of Amnesty International, along with 10 other human rights defenders, are facing up to 15 years in jail on terrorism charges.