An İstanbul court has released two Boğaziçi University students from pre-trial detention in the first hearing of a case in which they, along with five other defendants, face jail terms of between one and three years due to the display of a poster depicting the Kaaba with LGBT flags amid ongoing protests at the university due to its pro-government rector.
Seven students from the university who are accused of “publicly degrading the religious values of a segment of the public” by way of the display of the poster that shows the Kaaba in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, with believers across the world praying in its direction, on Wednesday presented their defense before a judge.
The poster placed a mythical half-woman, half-snake creature found in Middle Eastern folklore at the Kaaba along with the flags of LGBT, lesbian, trans and asexual people, with the text below saying that the artwork was a critique of traditional gender roles.
The first hearing of the trial took place at the İstanbul 21st Criminal Court of First Instance on Wednesday, with a number of students, nongovernmental organization representatives and politicians gathering in front of the Çağlayan Courthouse in İstanbul’s Şişli district to show support for the students on trial.
Among the politicians who attended Wednesday’s hearing were main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy group chairman Özgür Özel, CHP İstanbul provincial executive Canan Kaftancıoğlu, Workers’ Party of Turkey (TİP) MP Barış Atay and independent deputy and prominent journalist Ahmet Şık.
Although lawyer Levent Pişkin demanded the rejection of the indictment against the students, arguing that the artwork was displayed within the scope of freedom of expression and that it didn’t constitute a crime, the court rejected his request at the beginning of the hearing.
“We didn’t want to degrade anyone. I’m not a member of any LGBT groups. I don’t accept the charges. I don’t think we committed any crime, what we did was art,” Doğu Demirtaş, one of the students released by the court, said in his defense.
The other student who was also in pre-trial detention, Selahattin Uğuzeş, said he rejected the charge brought against him.
A defendant identified only by the initials S.B, who had been under house arrest for nearly a month, said: “The [pro-government] Yeni Şafak daily pointed to us as targets in a report. They are the ones ‘inciting hatred and enmity in the public.’ Because of this accusation, [which led to the house arrest], I haven’t been able to go to work or pay my rent.”
The court ordered the removal of the electronic ankle bracelet and placed S.B. under a different supervisory measure, which requires the defendant to check in with the police on a weekly basis.
The next hearing of the case, the defendants of which are no longer in pre-trial detention, is scheduled to take place on July 5.
The students were detained on January 29, after top Turkish officials slammed the artwork’s display at an exhibition on the university campus amid ongoing protests against Melih Bulu, a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose appointment by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sparked the protests at the university in early January.
Since the beginning of 2021, hundreds demanding the resignation of Bulu and the appointment of a rector from the university staff after the holding of an election have been detained for participating in the youth-driven protests.
The ongoing demonstrations have echoes of the Gezi Park protests, which erupted in 2013 against plans to demolish a park in İstanbul’s Taksim neighborhood before spreading nationally and presenting a direct challenge to Erdoğan’s rule.