Turkish court releases two university students on trial over protests

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A Turkish court on Wednesday ruled to release two Istanbul university students while they stand trial on charges of inciting hatred for displaying an image that combined Islamic imagery with LGBT flags, a lawyer said.

A total of seven students are charged in relation to the image, which was displayed at an exhibition during protests against President Tayyip Erdogan’s appointment of a rector at Istanbul’s prestigious Bogazici University.

The court also released another student from house arrest.

The protests at Bogazici began in January and briefly spread in Istanbul and other cities in February, leading to the detention of 600 people and some clashes with police.

“Because police intervened with tear gas during protests, we held an exhibition as a more peaceful method,” Dogu Demirtas, one of the two students who had been detained for a month and a half, told the court.

Demirtas said that they did not know who created the image, that combined a picture of the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, with LGBT flags, and that they had not put it up themselves.

He said that he saw a security guard put it up during the exhibition and that it disappeared the following day.

The judge, who asked Demirtas whether he was LGBT, later pulled out the image and displayed it briefly in court.

Lawyer Levent Piskin told the court the incitement charge was not valid because the events did not cause a public reaction and the students’ actions were protected by the freedom of expression.

When the image circulated on social media authorities responded with what the United States and the United Nations both described as homophobic rhetoric.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu repeatedly labelled the students “LGBT deviants” and Erdogan praised his AK Party’s youth wing for not being the “LGBT youth”.

Protests have continued on campus, with students and academics gathering daily to protest what they say was the undemocratic appointment of Melih Bulu, an academic and former political candidate, as rector.

Before the hearing around 200 people, mostly students, gathered some distance from Istanbul’s main courthouse, where the main square was closed off by police. They chanted slogans, while more than 50 riot police waited around the group.

Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Dominic Evans and Hugh Lawson