Release Turkish Prisoner of Conscience Osman Kavala

On Monday July 11th, the grand chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Turkey had violated the European Convention on Human Rights by not complying with the ruling that demanded the release of philanthropist Osman Kavala. The court argued that Kavala’s detention had been carried out and prolonged in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, and therefore he needed be released immediately. This ruling is the latest step in the extensive infringement process initiated by the Council of Europe, the continent’s foremost human rights organization, and could lead to Ankara’s suspension from the Council of Europe or membership in the 47-nation organization. Turkish President Erdogan has dismissed the infringement procedure, stating that Turkey would not “recognize those who do not recognize our courts.”

Kavala, a Turkish civil rights activist who has been in jail for nearly five years, was sentenced to life in prison without parole in April 2022 after the Turkish court found him guilty of attempting to overthrow the government through mass demonstrations in 2013, known as the Gezi protests – the most popular challenge to then-premier Tayyip Erdogan. Seven other individuals were sentenced to prison for 18 years for aiding Kavala in what critics referred to as a “political trial aimed at criminalizing nationwide demonstrations.”

In the aftermath of the Court’s ruling, Julia Hall of Amnesty International’s Europe office stated that: “Today’s ruling lays bare yet again the failure of the government to abide by a legally binding obligation. Turkey’s continuing inaction compounds the egregious suffering of Osman Kavala and his family.”

On December 10th, 2019, the ECHR ruled that Turkey violated Osman Kavala’s right to liberty, claiming his detention and trial were used to silence him and send a dangerous message to civil society in Turkey. An Istanbul court first acquitted Kavala in February 2020 with the judgment demanding that the immediate release of Kavala be finalized in May 2020, yet Kavala has remained imprisoned. He was expected to be released from prison where he had been held since October 2017 in pre-trial detention, but was instead re-arrested on other charges. The ECHR added that the new indictment brought against Kavala after the ECHR ruling in December 2020 did not contain any substantial facts and that “the investigating authorities had once again referred to numerous acts which were carried out entirely lawfully.”

A statement from the European Union declares, “Turkey urgently needs to make concrete and sustained progress in the respect of fundamental rights. Turkey’s continued refusal to implement these rulings increases the EU’s concerns regarding the Turkish judiciary’s adherence to international and European standards.”

Kavala’s case is politically motivated and is meant to dissuade other Turkish civilians from engaging in human rights advocacy and to paralyze civil society in the country. It is evident that the philanthropist was prosecuted with unreliable evidence as Turkey’s criminal justice system is politically manipulated, with detention and prosecutions pursued at President Erdogan’s discretion. The systemic damage caused to the rule of law in Turkey by the continuous deliberate attempts to use the legal system as a means of targeting and silencing human rights defenders is amplified by the personal damage caused to Osman Kavala as well as the other defendants. Kavala’s imprisonment, one that is largely defended by conspiracy theories, continues despite the absence of any credible or tangible evidence that proves his involvement in criminal activity. His release needs to be the first of several steps to reverse the damage caused by the massive crackdown on civil society over the last decade in Turkey and to restore respect for human rights in the country.

Kavala’s detention is only one example of the harsh crackdown by the Turkish government on its critics. Over the last three years, the government has closed down more than 1,500 associations and foundations, while also suppressing peaceful protests. Over 100 journalists and media workers remain in Turkish prisons. Despite having signed The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and The European Convention on Human Rights, the Turkish government has refused to grant Kavala or other government critics such rights. Turkey should end its crackdown on civil society and release imprisoned journalists, human rights defenders, and other civil society members against whom authorities have not provided credible, tangible evidence of internationally recognizable crimes. The international community should also continue to mount pressure on Turkey to release Kavala and other political prisoners detained by Erdogan’s authoritarian state.

Osman Kavala was first detained by police on October 18, 2017, at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport while returning from a visit with representatives of the Goethe Institute to Gaziantep where he supported a project for Syrian refugees. Kavala is the founder of the nongovernmental group Anadolu Kültür A.Ş., which focuses on cultural and artistic projects promoting peace and dialogue.

A court ordered Kavala to be held in pre-trial detention on November 1, 2017, allegedly on suspicion that he organized the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in 2013 and was involved in the July 15, 2016, attempted military coup. In March 2019, Kavala and 15 others were indicted on charges of “attempting to overthrow the government or partially or wholly preventing its functions” (Article 312 of Turkey’s criminal code) for their alleged role in the Gezi protests.