ISTANBUL – When the police hit his door and took him away for interrogation at dawn in November 2018, Yigit Aksakoglu assumed that he would return to his home in time for an afternoon swim.
But after a 10-hour interrogation, he was deported to court and thrown into prison in solitary confinement for seven months on charges of being one of the most heinous crimes in Turkey, where he tried violently to overthrow the government.
The Turkish representative of a Dutch charity specializing in social development programs for young children, Mr. Axakoglu, 43, has never expected to face a problem with the law. Even when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began mass arrests after a failed coup in 2016, when many academics, journalists, and human rights activists invaded innocent people, he never thought he would be involved.
“I was chosen by mistake,” Mr. Akaksoglu said in an interview at his office in central Istanbul. “Now they are unable to fail me.”
A judgment is expected in his trial on Tuesday and, along with 15 of the other defendants, he will face a life sentence without parole. “Just like a lottery I will spend a long time in prison,” he said.
The Prosecutor has called for harsh sentences despite Mr. Aksakoglu’s insistence that the charges are unfounded and that the evidence is vague. Concern is mounting that, under Mr Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule, he and other co-accused will be punished for sending the cold across Turkey’s active community of organizations and independent activists.
“February 18 will be the funeral of civil society in Turkey,” said Mr. Aksakoglu. “No one will be willing to raise a small voice.”
The issue originates from Taksim Square protests in 2013, when students, artists, and environmentalists opposed building a shopping mall in one of Istanbul’s central parks. Western diplomats are closely watching the trial, who would like to see an improvement in Mr Erdogan’s record on human rights and the rule of law.
One of the accused with Mr. Aksakoglu is Osman Kavala, the well-known philanthropist – often called Turkish George Soros – who has been in prison for more than two years. Another is the architect Mosella Yapici who has long been an outspoken opponent of many of Mr. Erdogan Extensive urban development in Istanbul. All of them are accused of trying to topple the government by supporting the protests.
But the fate of Mr. Aksakoglu shows how The justice system in Turkey has become quirky: someone has encouraged himself thanks to a government education whose career is being shattered by his government.
He was born in a small village, Aydın, in western Turkey, and raised with his sister alone by his mother, a pharmacist in a government hospital, after his father died in a car accident when he was eleven years old.
He received a scholarship to a French-Turkish high school in Izmir and another to study civil engineering at Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul. He participated in European integration activities, youth participation and good governance as part of a program sponsored by the European Union.
He continued to obtain a master’s degree – on a British scholarship – at the London School of Economics and another masters degree at the University of Barcelona in advocacy and NGOs. After returning to Turkey, he began working at Bilgi University, where he gave lectures and published books on advocacy and management training and how to influence politics.
It was in the early 2000s, when Mr. Erdogan was rising in Western opinion. He was actively seeking Turkey’s accession to the European Union, and his government was undertaking fundamental institutional and human rights reforms to meet European standards.
But after a decade at the head of the government, Mr. Erdogan’s early enthusiasm for reform faded as corruption and nepotism grew. When protesters gathered to block the construction project in Taksim Square Garden, Mr. Erdogan saw it as a direct challenge to his rule and crushed protests with riot police and tear gas.
Mr. Akaksoglu lived nearby and said he watched the protests with an academic diligence watching a real experience. He said, “I studied social movements.” “It was the first time that I saw a social movement, of course I was there, as a peaceful observer.”
By then he worked for a Dutch organization, and The Bernard Van Leer FoundationWho was designing programs to improve child development in disadvantaged urban societies. In 2014, he became the Foundation’s representative in Turkey.
He held one workshop with fellow civil society members after the Taksim Square protests to reflect on events, but by that time he had returned to his main passion: helping to improve the lives of children ages 6 and older.
He developed a program called Urban 95 looking for city planning and architecture from a height of 95 cm (or 37 inches), the average height of a 3-year-old child. He mapped the districts of Istanbul where the most disadvantaged children lived and found neighborhoods without a single garden and even a mother who had not left her home for two years.
He ran a home visit program to help mothers improve their children’s social and cognitive development through play. He said, “I am trying to build the capacities of municipalities to provide services to young children and their carers.”
Next is the playground design for young children of the newly elected Istanbul mayor.
“I work in this sector to make a difference,” he said, but not necessarily linked to a political party or against a political party. I am a professional in social development. What I am doing now 20 or 25 years ago is very clear. “
His arrest came from blue. After five years of Taksim Square protests, prosecutors withdrew old and disadvantaged investigations and accused 16 trade unionists, artists, and activists of trying to topple the government, and destroy property, and for some of them, including Mr. Aksakoglu, spread and deepened the protests throughout the country.
The interrogation would have been augmentable had it not been dangerous. The evidence largely consists of the minutes of recorded phone conversations – the original tapes were never produced in court. But Mr. Akasoglu said that the investigator often misunderstood the talks. When mentioning the revolutionary Rosa Luxembourg, the investigator asked if he had attended a meeting in the country of Luxembourg.
Mr. Aksakoglu was held in solitary confinement in the main high-security prison in Silivri, outside Istanbul. He said: “It was really difficult to overcome the shock that hit me.” “I couldn’t speak to anyone about my condition.”
He asked to move to a dungeon with other people, but he was turned down. Eventually learn prison methods. He lay on a newspaper with his head on the floor next to the door, and he was screaming under the prisoner’s door across the corridor every day at 4 pm. The corridor was filled with political prisoners, and they all shouted to their neighbors.
He saw his lawyer and received visits from his wife and two daughters, 8 and 4, but he began to scare his older daughter’s questions because she was counting the days he was imprisoned and asked when he was going home.
After seven and a half months in detention, he was released under orders to inform the police once a week. He quietly returned to work. But as the trial approached, the prosecutor approached the toughest possible sentence – a life sentence without parole.
Mr. Akaksoglu is not very confident in the possibility of a fair judgment after seven months of hearings.
He said the government treats the defendants “like a slight change in their pockets.” They came in the middle of our lives and destroyed it. My past is for nothing now and I have no future. “