ISTANBUL — When the police banged on his door and took him away for questioning one dawn in November 2018, Yigit Aksakoglu assumed he would be home in time to catch his afternoon swim.
But after a 10-hour interrogation, he was hauled off to court and thrown into jail in solitary confinement for seven months on a charge that is among Turkey’s most heinous crimes, violently attempting to overthrow the government.
The Turkish representative for a Dutch charitable foundation specializing in programs for the social development of young children, Mr. Aksakoglu, 43, never expected to run into trouble with the law. Even when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey began mass arrests after a failed coup in 2016, sweeping up many innocent academics, journalists and human rights activists, he never thought he would be caught up in it, too.
“I was picked accidentally,” Mr. Aksakoglu said in an interview at his office in central Istanbul. “And now they are unable to unpick me.”
A verdict in his trial is expected on Tuesday and he, along with 15 co-defendants, faces a possible sentence of life without parole. “Just like a lottery I will probably spend a long time in prison,” he said.
The prosecutor has called for the harsh sentence despite Mr. Aksakoglu’s insistence that the charges are baseless and the evidence flimsy. Fears are mounting that under Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic rule, he and his co-defendants will be punished in order to send a chill through Turkey‘s dwindling community of independent organizations and activists.
“The 18th of February will be the funeral of civil society in Turkey,” Mr. Aksakoglu said. “No one will be willing to raise even a tiny voice.”
The case stems from the Taksim Square protests of 2013, when students, artists and environmentalists opposed the construction of a shopping mall in one of Istanbul’s central parks. The trial is being watched closely by Western diplomats who want to see an improvement in Mr. Erdogan’s record on human rights and the rule of law.
One of Mr. Aksakoglu’s co-defendants is Osman Kavala, a well known philanthropist — often called Turkey’s George Soros — who has been in jail for over two years. Another is the architect Mucella Yapici who has long been a vocal opponent of much of Mr. Erdogan’s extensive urban development in Istanbul. All are accused of trying to overthrow the government by supporting the protests.
But Mr. Aksakoglu’s fate is indicative of just how twisted Turkey’s justice system has become: Someone who pulled himself up thanks to a state education is seeing his career crushed by his own government.
He was born in a small village, Aydin, in western Turkey, and together with his sister was raised single-handedly by his mother, a pharmacist in a state hospital, after his father died in a car accident when he was 11.
He gained a scholarship to the French-Turkish high school in the city of Izmir and another to study civil engineering at Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul. It was there that he became involved in activities for European integration, youth participation and good governance under a program sponsored by the European Union.
He went on to earn a master’s degree — on a British scholarship — at the London School of Economics and a second master’s at the University of Barcelona in advocacy and nongovernmental organizations. Back in Turkey he began to work at Bilgi University, lecturing and publishing books on advocacy, management training and how to influence policy.
It was the early 2000s, a time when Mr. Erdogan was riding high in Western opinion. He was energetically pursuing Turkey’s accession to the European Union and his government was making substantial institutional and human rights reforms to meet European standards.
But after a decade at the helm of government, Mr. Erdogan’s early zeal for reform waned as corruption and cronyism grew. When protesters gathered to block the construction project in Taksim Square park, Mr. Erdogan saw it as a direct challenge to his rule and crushed the protests with riot police and tear gas.
Mr. Aksakoglu lived nearby and said he watched the protests with the keenness of an academic watching a real-life experiment. “I studied social movements,” he said. “This was the first time I saw a social movement so of course I was there, as a peaceful observer.”
By then he was working for a Dutch organization, the Bernard van Leer Foundation, which was designing programs to improve child development in disadvantaged urban communities. 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 the events but otherwise returned to what, by then, had become his main passion: helping improve the lives of children age 6 and younger.
He developed a program called Urban 95 looking at city planning and architecture from the view of 95 centimeters (or 37 inches) high, the average height of a 3-year-old. He mapped the areas of Istanbul where the most disadvantaged children lived and found neighborhoods without a single park and even a mother who had not left her house for two years.
He ran a program of home visits to help mothers improve their children’s social and cognitive development through play. “I try to build capacities of municipalities so that they provide services to young children and their caregivers,” he said.
Next he is designing playgrounds for young children for the newly elected mayor of Istanbul.
“I am working in this sector in order to create change,” he said, “but not necessarily related to a political party or against a political party. I am a professional of social development. What I am doing now for the last 20 or 25 years is very obvious.”
His detention came out of the blue. Five years after the Taksim Square protests, prosecutors pulled out old, discredited investigations and accused 16 trade unionists, artists and activists of trying to overthrow the government, destroying property and, for some of them, including Mr. Aksakoglu, disseminating and deepening the protests around the country.
The interrogation would have been risible were it not so serious. The evidence consisted largely of transcripts of taped phone conversations — the original tapes have never been produced in court. But the interrogator often misunderstood the conversations, Mr. Aksakoglu said. At the mention of the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, the interrogator asked if he had attended a meeting in the country of Luxembourg.
Mr. Aksakoglu was locked in solitary confinement in the main high-security prison at Silivri, outside Istanbul. “It was really hard to cope with the shock on my own,” he said. “I was not able to talk to anyone about my situation.”
He asked to move to a cell with other people, but was refused. Eventually he learned the ways of the prison. Lying on a newspaper, his head on the floor by the door, he would shout under the door to the inmate across the corridor every day at 4 p.m. The corridor was filled with political prisoners, and they all shouted to their neighbors.
He saw his lawyers and received visits from his wife and two daughters, 8 and 4, but began to dread his elder daughter’s questions as she counted the days he had been jailed and asked when he was coming home.
After seven and a half months in detention, he was released under orders to report to the police once a week. He quietly went back to work. But as the trial draws to a close, the prosecutor has requested the toughest sentence possible — a life sentence without parole.
Mr. Aksakoglu has little faith in the possibility of a fair judgment after seven months of hearings.
The government treats the defendants “like small change in their pockets,” he said. “They came into the middle of our lives and they ruined them. My past is for nothing now and I have no future.”
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