October 18th, 2018 marked one full year since civil society leader Osman Kavala’s unlawful imprisonment in Turkey’s highest security prison. Last Wednesday his lawyers organized a press conference to mark the anniversary, stating their only demand was “justice.” Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and a number of global journalists and activists have now renewed their call for his “immediate and unconditional” release.
Despite one year having passed since the ruling, no indictment stating the precise charges against him has been issued by the prosecuting authorities. Neither Mr. Kavala nor his family or lawyers have been shown evidence to justify his prolonged prison detention in a Silivri prison near Istanbul. His lawyers say the failure to indict him amounts to “torture,” particularly as he remains in solitary confinement. They are unable to access his criminal files.
Mr. Kavala was first detained at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport as he arrived from Gaziantep, in eastern Turkey. He was instantly the object of a smear campaign mounted by the pro-government media alleging that he had links with four distinct “terrorist” groups, including that of Muslim cleric and longtime rival to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Fethullah Gulen. President Erdoğan himself calls Mr. Kavala “Turkey’s Soros,” alluding to billionaire philanthropist George Soros, a man often targeted by right-wingers throughout Central and Eastern Europe and the United States. Credible evidence has yet to be released to substantiate these media allegations.
Importantly, the detention came amidst a wider crackdown by the Turkish government on civil society, government critics and human rights activists. Mr. Kavala himself is an active promoter of civil society culture, having provided financial support to numerous independent CSOs, NGOs and pan-Turkish cultural associations. He articulates a mission to defend diversity, human rights, mutual understanding and conflict resolution. He is involved in incredibly sensitive and politicized issues concerning Armenians, Yazidis and Kurds. In this regard, it should come as no surprise that he was targeted like this.
President Erdoğan’s far-reaching attack on his critics manifested to its fullest after the failed military attempt to seize power in 2016. Human Rights Watch reports that over the last two years, more than 1,500 organizations have closed down. Peaceful protest is often violently suppressed. Despite the end of state-of-emergency rule, those who criticize the government still risk criminal charges and lengthy detentions. Currently, over 150 journalists remain in prison and hundreds of thousands of public sector workers are arbitrarily dismissed for “links to terrorist organizations.” The Turkish government has yet to provide sufficient evidence against most of these individuals accused of internationally recognizable crimes.
The gross infringements of Mr. Kavala’s human rights over arbitrary and seemingly unfounded charges illustrate the extent to which the Turkish government will go to silence its loudest critics. The European Parliament rapporteur to Turkey Kati Piri released a statement denouncing the government’s jailing of citizens for purely “political reasons.” It is worth noting the crisis also highlights the stalemate within the Turkish judiciary itself, where the government fired over 4,500 judges and prosecutors after the failed coup. It is furthermore vital for Turkey to end long pre-trial detentions and legal proceedings, which ultimately amount to punishment in advance regardless of whether the detained is innocent or guilty of the alleged crime(s).
“A year has passed…I want to join my family, my friends and get my freedom as soon as possible…giving back freedoms to those who have suffered from an approach that does not value human freedom, which is against the constitution and the norms of European Court of Human rights, are among the state’s most important priorities.” Mr. Kavala penned his letter on the 365th day of his arrest from his cell. At the moment, his lawyers have applied to the European Court of Human Rights and are awaiting the Turkish judiciary’s stance in January of 2019.
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