ISTANBUL (Reuters) -A Turkish court on Friday began the latest hearing in the trial of philanthropist businessman Osman Kavala, whose case provoked a diplomatic dispute between Ankara and its Western allies after they called for his immediate release.
The trial of Kavala, who has been in jail without conviction for more than four years, has been criticised as politically motivated and symbolic of a crackdown on dissent under President Tayyip Erdogan.
The government rejects this and says Turkey's courts are independent.
Last month Erdogan threatened to expel the ambassadors of 10 countries, including the United States, Germany and France, after they echoed a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling that Kavala should be freed.
The prospect of further deterioration in Western ties added at the time to pressure on the Turkish lira, which has hit new record lows since September due mostly to aggressive interest rate cuts.
Kavala, who has been attending hearings via video link, was not participating on Friday.
His wife and opposition lawmakers were in the packed courtroom in Istanbul's main courthouse, as well as diplomats from some of the 10 embassies involved in the dispute, including the United States, France, Germany, and Sweden.
Kavala was acquitted last year of charges related to nationwide protests in 2013 focused on Istanbul's Gezi Park, but the ruling was overturned this year and combined with charges in another case related to a coup attempt in 2016. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Kavala, 64, said it would be "meaningless" for him to attend the court hearings as a fair trial was impossible given Erdogan's comments about him.
"As a citizen defending the rule of law, I think it is not right to act in a way that would legitimize the current situation the judiciary is exposed to," he said in a statement.
Taksim Solidarity, a group formed during the Gezi protests that includes city planners and lawyers, said the "mindless and illegal" case against Kavala must be dropped immediately.
"Osman Kavala, who has been remanded in jail for 1,487 days as a political prisoner, must be released," the group said in a statement read out in the square outside the courthouse, which was packed with dozens of riot police and water cannon vehicles.
Kavala is on trial with 51 other people in a combination of three separate cases over the 2013 protests and the 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan and his government.
The ECHR called for Kavala's release in late 2019 over a lack of reasonable suspicion that he committed an offence, ruling that his detention served to silence him.
The Council of Europe has said it will begin infringement proceedings against Turkey if Kavala is not released, which could eventually lead to Turkey being expelled from the body.
(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Gareth Jones, Daren Butler and Giles Elgood)