ANKARA: A Turkish court jailed 45 students Tuesday over a 2012 protest against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at an Ankara university when he visited to celebrate a satellite launch, state media reported.
The students were convicted of violating laws on meetings and impeding public officials in their work after they demonstrated against Erdogan’s visit to Middle East Technical University (METU).
The court in the capital Ankara sentenced each of the students to 10 months imprisonment, state-run news agency Anadolu said.
Police used tear gas and water cannon during the clashes with protesters in December 2012 when Erdogan visited the campus to watch the launch of a Turkish earth observation satellite into orbit aboard a Chinese rocket via a video link.
The clashes caused huge controversy, with the opposition accusing the authorities of using heavy-handed tactics against a relatively minor demonstration.
Aykan Erdemir, a former lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), who criticised the government at the time, attacked the decision to jail the students.
“It is sad to see that prison sentences continue to be the main response of the Turkish government to student criticism and protests,” Erdemir told AFP, noting that the government had recently released 38,000 convicts to relieve pressure on Turkey’s overcrowded prisons.
Erdogan was prime minister at the time of the protest and became president in August 2014, extending his domination of the country.
In June 2013, he survived one of the biggest challenges to his rule when opponents, many of them students, took to the streets nationwide during weeks of protests against the Turkish strongman.
During the hearing, lawyers for the defendants insisted that the students had not committed any crimes and called for their acquittal, Anadolu reported.
Judge Avni Mis adjourned the sentencing for three students, whose lawyers made the request, to an unspecified date, the agency said without giving further details.
Opponents have accused Erdogan of undermining civil liberties and freedom of speech in Turkey, in particular after the July 15 failed military coup which has seen tens of thousands dismissed from their jobs or detained.
Authorities insist that Turkey is a democratic country and that the measures are intended to punish genuine crimes.