Osman Kavala, the most important representative of Turkish civil society, after already spending 1,651 days in prison, has now been sentenced to life in prison for having financed and supported the Gezi Park movement and having allegedly played a role in organising the attempted coup d’état of July 15th, 2016, while he was instead not found guilty of political and military espionage.
Kavala, a philanthropist and human rights activist, acknowledged internationally as the standard bearer of culture and democracy, was the victim of a Kafkian court case that will go down in history. The entire civil rights movement has been sentenced with him.
The verdict passed on Monday April 25th by the Çağlayan court in Istanbul against eight intellectuals and members of Turkish civil society was described by a number of international NGOs as an outrageous blow to human rights.
Screams of pain and crying lacerated the solemnity of the courtroom in the 13th Penal Court when the ruling was passed, sentencing the philanthropist to life in prison and the other 7 accused, all human rights activists including Can Atalay, Mücella Yapıcı, Çiğdem Mater, Hakan Altınay, MineÖzerden, Tayfun Kahraman and Yiğit Ali Ekmekçi, to 18 years in prison. They too were given long sentences for “organising and financing” the Gezi anti-government protests in the spring of 2013, which saw the spontaneous participation of millions of people across the country. Henri Barkey, a professor at Lehigh University in the U.S., and seven other defendants will be tried separately.
Immediately after the verdict, expressions of outrage came from all civil society organisations, various European politicians and all opposition forces. ‘Taksim Dayanışması’ (‘Solidarity for Taksim’), the Gezi movement’s militant network, protested in several Turkish cities, including In Istanbul, where protests were held near the iconic Taksim Square, but the police immediately intervened arresting 51 people.
But why all this fury against such an influential and respected personality in the world of academia and civil society in Europe?
History of a persecution
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had personally accused Osman Kavala of being behind the subversive plot to support what he calls the “Gezi subversives” intent on overthrowing his government. He had not approved the İstanbul Court’s first acquittal ruling on February 18th, 2020, which is why it was not followed by Kavala’s release..
Erdoğan’s theory is that the Gezi protests were nothing more than a criminal operation aimed at subverting institutional order and overturning his government and it was therefore necessary to punish those who had organised and financed them.
An acquittal would have rendered this theory unfounded and indirectly legitimised those spontaneous anti-government protests, sparked by the population, regardless of political parties or any forms of ideology, attended by vast and transversal parts of society opposing Erdogan’s authoritarianism.
So on that afternoon of February 18th two years ago, Kavala was acquitted and about to be released, but just a few minutes later, even before leaving the prison in Silivri, he was handed a new arrest warrant accusing him of having organised the 2016 coup d’état.
The Turkish president described that acquittal as “a move to try and release him”. It was an indictment against those same magistrates who had judged Kavala, they too guilty of being at Soros’ service, the man who according to the president “Was behind the scene like a secret director of a plot, just as happens in a coup.”
“Nobody in those protests at Gezi should be considered innocent” said Erdoğan at the time, making it understood that he would never have accepted acquittals and hence this new case was assigned to a different court, the 13th.
In February 2022, the Council of Europe had taken a further step to launch sanctions against Turkey for not having respected the European Human Rights Court’s sentence dated 2019 that requested clearly that the Turkish philanthropist be released, describing the case as politically motivated and planned so as to silence his voice and that of the country’s civil society.
This infringement procedure could lead to suspending Turkey’s right to vote in the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly or even its membership in this important institution.
If this is a trial
The whole trial was a Kafkaesque succession of judicial manoeuvres to keep Turkey’s leading civil society figure in prison in total disregard of fair legal standards.
The fact that one of the judges in that court had been a candidate in the 2018 parliamentary elections for Erdoğan’s party was just another disconcerting example of how this case has been marked by political interference.
“Kavala’s sentencing was decided by the presidential palace; he was not tried by judges nor by a court, because these judges were working on behalf of the Turkish president and not in the name of the law and of jurisprudence,” said the HDP’s MP Garo Paylan.
Kavala, whose family moved from Greece to Istanbul during the population exchange of the 1920s, after leaving his family business in 2002 founded Anadolu Kültür, of which he is the president. This is a non-profit organisation centred on cultural and artistic projects promoting peace as well as inter-ethnic and religious dialogue.
The Turkish president had started to become obsessed by Kavala from the very beginning of the Gezi protests, when his government started a dialogue with the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, with a number of representatives of the People’s Democratic party (HDP) a libertarian and pro-Kurdish left-wing party, as go-betweens. Those were the years of the so-called “openness to Kurds”.
During that period the president of Anadolu Kültür contributed to the establishment of an important dialogue between the government and civil society. Kavala had in fact been a member of the commission of wisemen appointed by the government in 2014; a pool of over 70 intellectuals, experts, academics and men from the world of entertainment with the task of monitoring the opinions of the populations living in south-east Anatolia and illustrate to them the roadmap proposed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) so as to resolve the Kurdish issue, the result of negotiations undertaken by the executive for the leader of the PKK, Öcalan, detained in the high security prison of İmları. This agreement failed a few months later. Erdoğan was at the time hoping for the Kurds’ support so as to reach the two thirds majority in parliament that he needed so as to change the constitution, introducing the presidential system that would have allowed him to have almost total power and hence he opened negotiation with the Kurds.
But both Kavala and the HDP’s founder and charismatic leader. Selahattin Demirtaş, now also imprisoned, had expressed their opposition to such presidentialism reforms. Kavala believed that the introduction of the presidential system would have resulted in transforming Turkey into a strongly authoritarian regime. And this paved the way for the Turkish president’s revenge.
As the peace process with the PKK failed and the arrival of the electoral success of the pro-Kurdish HDP, Erdoğan lost his absolute majority in parliament and soon after that established an alliance with the ultra-nationalist members of the MHP, marking the end of all pro-Kurdish policies. Since then, Ankara never approved of the support Kavala offered the country’s liberal, secular civil society in opposition.
On October 18th, 2017, having returned from Gaziantep where he had attended a human rights conference at the Goethe Institute, the philanthropist was arrested at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport.
He spent his first 16 months in prison without any accusations made against him.
Only later was he permitted to learn about the reason for his arrest, which was also unknown to his lawyers. All that was known was that he had been identified by the president and by pro-government media as a dangerous enemy of the nation; a troublesome person who should be silenced by locking him up in prison while waiting to find a crime to accuse him of.
The indictment, later formulated, is encapsulated in 657 pages with which on March 4th ì, 2019, the 30th High Criminal Court sought aggravated life imprisonment for the 16 defendants, including Osman Kavala, despite the absence of any documentary evidence whatsoever. The trial against him was conducted in disregard of the existing laws and procedural rules of Turkish law.
Forced testimonies and indictments were produced that were turned into documents of shame in order to keep the philanthropist in prison.
Every time the completely invented charges, for which no concrete evidence could be presented, collapsed one by one, new ones were produced using expedients that forced the hand of the law, in order to avoid releasing the prisoner and keeping Kavala with his back to the wall, in defiance of any scruples for the real justice.
All this continued until this week’s epilogue, with a sentence of aggravated life imprisonment.
A dark night has fallen over Osman Kavala’s fate, just as it has over the rule of law in Turkey.
Cover Photo: Protesters hold placards and shout slogans during a rally in support of civil society leader Osman Kavala – Istanbul, April 26, 2022 (Yasin Akgul / AFP).
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