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By Ali Kucukgocmen
ISTANBUL (Reuters) -A Turkish court began the re-trial of philanthropist Osman Kavala and 15 others on Friday over their role in 2013 nationwide protests, an expanding case that critics and even Ankara's Western allies say aims to quash dissent.
Kavala and eight others accused of organising the Gezi Park protests, which began in Istanbul, were acquitted of all charges in February 2020 but an appeals court overturned that ruling in January.
Kavala, a high-profile prisoner who has been detained for three-and-a-half years, is also accused of involvement in a 2016 coup attempt. Those charges were combined with the Gezi case in February.
The judge on Friday requested the dossiers of another Gezi-related case against 35 members of a group supporting soccer champions Besiktas. The court is deciding whether to merge the two cases after the fans' acquittal from 2015 was overturned on appeal last month.
Kavala told the court by video link that the bid to merge the two cases reflected a political strategy that seeks to ignore evidence.
"Because merging different cases prevents focusing on actions, it is a useful method in political cases to create a perception," he said.
The court rejected a request for Kavala to be released from custody and set the next hearing for August 6.
The European Court of Human Rights called in 2019 for Kavala's release on grounds the detention aimed to silence him. But Turkey has not abided the ruling despite repeated calls by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.
The United States also called for his release in February.
Critics say Turkey's judiciary has been exploited to punish President Tayyip Erdogan's perceived opponents, especially under a crackdown after the 2016 coup attempt. The president and his AK Party say the courts make independent decisions.
"Each phase of this case is riddled with injustices, inconsistencies and illogical and unlawful procedures," said a campaign group called Free Osman Kavala.
The case of seven others who were abroad during the initial trial was joined again this month for the re-trial.
Some of the defendants had also been acquitted in 2015 of charges related to the Gezi protests, meaning they are being tried over the same events for a third time.
The Gezi demonstrations in the summer of 2013 started as a protest against the redevelopment of a park in Istanbul, a city with limited green space, and quickly spread across the country.
Erdogan, then Turkey's prime minister, dismissed the idea they were environmentally motivated and said they aimed to topple his government. The defendants deny the charges against them.
The indictment calls for life sentences without parole for the defendants, who are accused of attempting to overthrow the government and financing the protests among other charges.
In response to questions from Reuters in March, Kavala said: "The claim that I planned, directed and financed the Gezi protests was an extremely fantastical one."
The allegations that he was involved in the 2016 coup attempt "much more absurd," Kavala added. "These are properly surrealist fiction. They are impossible to falsify because they are not based on any evidence, concrete fact or reality."
(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Toby Chopra)