The life sentence handed to Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala is a dark day for the civil society in Turkey

A screenshot from the video report by DW German following the court verdict.

It was a trial closely followed by international and local observers. Finally, on April 25, the Turkish court handed down its decision. Turkey's renowned philanthropist Osman Kavala was sentenced to life in prison after having spent four and a half years behind bars already.

The ruling went against the European Court of Human Rights’ 2019 calls to release Kavala due to “insufficient evidence,” and the Council of Europe statement from last year that said it would start infringement proceedings against Turkey at the end of November [2021] if Kavala was not released. In addition to Kavala, seven co-defendants were remanded to prison. All stood trial for charges of espionage and attempting to overthrow the government, among others.

Kareem Fahim wrote a piece for the Washington Post following the court's decision:

Kavala’s long legal ordeal had come to symbolize a tireless crackdown by Erdoğan on opposition figures, dissidents and other perceived enemies in the years since an attempted coup against the government in 2016. But even among the masses swept up in the state’s dragnet, Kavala stood out for the extraordinary lengths Turkey exerted to keep him locked up, and for Erdoğan’s apparent personal antagonism toward him.

Addressing the courtroom via video from the Silivri prison where he is held, the philanthropist described the trial as “completely deformed under political influence,” and his extended detention “an act of deprivation of liberty by abuse of power.” Kavala also said the verdict was “an assassination by the use of judiciary.”

Following the court's decision, the European Parliament's Standing Rapporteur for Turkey Nacho Sánchez Amor (S&D, ES), and the Chair of the EU-Turkey Parliamentary Delegation Sergey Lagodinsky (Greens/EFA, DE) issued a statement criticizing the trial outcome:

Turkey’s judiciary has confirmed the worst of forecasts when convicting today Osman Kavala to aggravated life sentence on the account of allegedly attempting to overthrow the government. This regrettable decision by the Istanbul 13th Heavy Penal Court is in clear contempt to the rulings of the European Court on Human Rights and will surely bring about consequences in the infringement proceedings ongoing at the Council of Europe.

This decision reconfirms the authoritarian character of the current system and it clearly shows the lack of willingness to make any kind of real reforms in the field of fundamental rights and rule of law. In this view, there is little to none EU perspective for the current Turkey, which is sliding away from international consensus on a rule-based order while disrespecting its own international commitments.

Amnesty International described the decision as a “devastating blow for human rights” in Turkey. Amnesty International’s Europe Director, Nils Muižnieks, said:

Today, we have witnessed a travesty of justice of spectacular proportions. This verdict deals a devastating blow not only to Osman Kavala, his co-defendants and their families, but to everyone who believes in justice and human rights activism in Turkey and beyond. The court’s decision defies all logic. The prosecuting authorities have repeatedly failed to provide any evidence that substantiates the baseless charges of attempting to overthrow the government. This unjust verdict shows that the Gezi trial was only an attempt to silence independent voices.

Kavala, a successful Turkish businessman who has supported numerous civil society initiatives in Turkey over the years, including the Open Society Foundation Turkey, was taken into custody on October 18, 2017. Two weeks later he was arrested on charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” and “attempting to overthrow the government” over his alleged financing of the Gezi Protests in 2013. He has been in a maximum-security prison since November 2017.

In February 2020, Kavala was acquitted however, hours later, he was accused of involvement in the 2016 coup attempt. Although he was cleared one month after this accusation, Kavala was kept in remand detention on the charge of “political or military espionage.” Then in January 2021, his acquittal in the Gezi Park trial was reversed and during the trial held in February 2021, the court ruled to combine charges leveled against Kavala in the Gezi Park trial with the 2016 coup, ruling to continue his detention. Kavala's lawyers have said, the indictment is a presumptive fiction lacking any evidence. International human rights organizations and civil society groups in Turkey have said the arrest of Kavala is politically motivated.

Last year, on the fourth year anniversary of Kavala's arrest, Turkey found itself in the midst of a diplomatic storm when the embassies of 10 countries signed a statement on the ongoing detention of the philanthropist.

The ambassadors’ statement read:

Today marks four years since the ongoing detention of Osman Kavala began. The continuing delays in his trial, including by merging different cases and creating new ones after a previous acquittal, cast a shadow over respect for democracy, the rule of law and transparency in the Turkish judiciary system.

Together, the embassies of Canada, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the United States of America believe a just and speedy resolution to his case must be in line with Turkey’s international obligations and domestic laws. Noting the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights on the matter, we call for Turkey to secure his urgent release.

In response to the signed statement, Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he would expel 10 diplomats among them seven of Turkey's NATO allies and major trading partners. The President described the statement as “impudence” declaring the diplomats “persona non grata.” But when all 10 signatories reiterated their commitment to Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, recognizing Turkey's sovereignty and independence, the crisis was averted.

The Gezi protest

It was May 28, 2013, when a group of environmentalists decided to challenge the decision to demolish one of Istanbul's few remaining green spaces, Gezi Park. They gathered and set up tents in the park. They were soon met with tear gas in a widely-criticized show of police force.

In the coming weeks and months, students, academics, civil society advocates, and everyday citizens joined the non-violent protests. The Gezi movement became perhaps the largest act of civil disobedience in Turkish history, an unprecedented affront to the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. It also emerged as a milestone in Ankara's journey towards authoritarianism.

State rhetoric blamed the protests on external factors: the CIA, a Europe jealous of Turkey's rapid development, unspecified foreign forces in cahoots with terrorists, the “interest rate lobby,” Twitter, and even Lufthansa airlines.

One of the main features of Gezi was the innovative approach to civil disobedience that the movement gave birth to. According to authorities, protesters such as the “Woman in Red” and the “Standing Man” who garnered global media attention for their brave and creative stands against police repression, were trained and recruited from abroad.

But the Gezi movement spread and endured precisely because it appealed to a broad range of people dissatisfied with AKP rule. Rather than engage with the protesters, Ankara doubled down, portraying them as enemies of the state.

April 25, marks a dark day for civil society in Turkey but also for the families of those convicted. The baseless crimes and absence of evidence, left many speechless about the verdict and the future of Turkey.

There is a very very dark, huge heaviness on my heart, a lump in my throat. So much pain, injustice, unlawfulness. None of these beautiful people committed a crime, neither they, nor their families deserve all this agony, it's so sad, I can't find the words to write.

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