Turkish football fans put on trial over 'coup bid'

Turkish football fans put on trial over 'coup bid'
Protesters, who are supporting soccer fans on trial, shout slogans outside a court in Istanbul December 16, 2014.

ISTANBUL - Thirty-five supporters of Turkish top-flight football side Besiktas went on trial Tuesday facing life imprisonment on charges of seeking to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government in 2013 protests.

Hundreds of Besiktas supporters staged a raucous protest outside the Istanbul criminal court, shouting football chants backing the accused, who are all members of the club's main fan club, the Carsi Group.

Prosecutors have accused all 35 of seeking to stage a coup to overthrow the government of Erdogan, who was then prime minister, during the unprecedented protests against his rule last year.

However rights groups have ridiculed the charges as absurdly flimsy and based on tendentious evidence such as intercepted telephone calls and text messages merely criticising the government.

"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 at Human Rights Watch.

Prosecutors have demanded life sentences for the accused, who are not currently under arrest and who entered court through a side door.

The supporters surrounding the court brandished Besitkas football scarves in the club's black-and-white colours and let off flares.

The indictment says the Carsi members tried to make the protest look like the "Arab Spring" by providing the foreign media with images of clashes.

As well as seeking to stage a coup, they have also been charged with acting as a criminal gang and resisting police.

'About freedom, not football'

The judge opened the trial by reading out the long list of defendants and then the charges, with supporters laughing loudly as every charge was read out, an AFP correspondent said.

One of the defendants, Cem Yakiskan was told by the judge he was accused of encouraging people to take to the streets and also -- bizarrely -- of organising a pizza order for the protesters.

"The allegations are baseless, wrong and have nothing to do with me. It is my democratic right to ask for tangible evidence and only after that I can counter these claims," he told the court.

He quipped: "If we had been capable of staging a coup, we would have made Besiktas (league) champions!" Besiktas have not won the title since 2009.

Defence lawyer Efkan Bolac said the charges were unlawful and all the supporters had done was to counter attacks by police.

"We don't have any laws in place that say staging a protest amounts to a coup attempt."

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