He observed a protest. Now he faces a possible life sentence.


ISTANBUL – When the police knocked on his door and took him to interrogate him one morning in November 2018, Yigit Aksakoglu assumed that he would arrive home in time to swim in the afternoon.

But after a 10-hour interrogation, he was taken to court and imprisoned in solitary confinement for seven months on a charge that is among Turkey's most heinous crimes, violently trying to overthrow the government.

The Turkish representative of a Dutch charitable foundation that specializes in programs for the social development of young children, Mr. Aksakoglu, 43, never had problems with the law. Even when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey began with mass arrests after a failed coup in 2016, sweeping away many innocent academics, journalists and human rights activists, he never thought he would be caught in that as well.

"I was accidentally chosen," Aksakoglu said in an interview at his office in central Istanbul. "And now they can't take my clothes off."

A verdict is expected at his trial on Tuesday and he, along with 15 co-defendants, faces a possible life sentence without parole. "Like a lottery, I will probably spend a lot of time in prison," he said.

The prosecutor has asked for the severe sentence despite Mr. Aksakoglu's insistence that the charges are unfounded and the evidence is weak. Fears are rising that, under Mr. Erdogan's increasingly autocratic government, he and his co-defendants will be punished to send a shiver through the ever-diminishing community of independent organizations and activists in Turkey.

"February 18 will be the funeral of civil society in Turkey," Aksakoglu said. "No one will be willing to raise a small voice."

The case comes from The protests of Taksim Square in 2013, when students, artists and environmentalists opposed the construction of a shopping center in one of the central parks of Istanbul. Western diplomats closely observe the trial and want to see an improvement in Mr. Erdogan's record of human rights and the rule of law.

But Mr. Aksakoglu's fate is indicative of how Turkey's twisted justice system has become: someone who got up thanks to a state education is seeing his career crushed by his own government.

He was born in a small town, Aydin, in western Turkey, and along with his sister was raised by his mother, a pharmacist in a state hospital, after his father died in a car accident when he was 11 years old.

He obtained a scholarship for Franco-Turkish high school in the city of Izmir and another to study civil engineering at the 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 then obtained a master's degree, with a British scholarship, from the London School of Economics and a second master's degree from the University of Barcelona in defense and non-governmental organizations. Back in Turkey, he began working at Bilgi University, lecturing and publishing books on promotion, management training and how to influence policies.

It was in the early 2000s, when Erdogan was at the top of Western opinion. He was vigorously seeking 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 the government, Erdogan's early zeal for reform vanished as corruption and crony grew. When protesters gathered to block the construction project in Taksim Square Park, Erdogan saw it as a direct challenge to his government and crushed the protests with riot police and tear gas.

Mr. Aksakoglu lived nearby and said he observed the protests with the sharpness of an academic who was observing 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 I 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 representative of the foundation in Turkey.

After the protests in Taksim Square, he held a workshop with other members of civil society to reflect on the events, but otherwise he returned to what, by then, had become his main passion: to help improve life of children 6 years old or younger.

He developed a program called Urban 95 that analyzes the planning and architecture of the city from the view of 95 centimeters (or 37 inches) high, the average height of a 3-year-old child. 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 home in two years.

He directed a program of home visits to help mothers improve the social and cognitive development of their children through play. "I try to develop the capacities of the municipalities to provide services to young children and their caregivers," he said.

Then he is designing playgrounds for young children for the new elected mayor of Istanbul.

“I am working in this sector to create change,” he said, “but not necessarily related to a political party or against a political party. I am a social development professional. What I am doing now during the last 20 or 25 years is very obvious. "