Turkish court rules to keep Osman Kavala in jail

Turkey risks further tensions with European allies after court rules to keep philanthropist in jail during trial.

Kavala was handed a life sentence this week on allegations of attempting to overthrow the government by financing the 2013 Gezi Park protests
Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala has been jailed since 2017 on charges of seeking to overthrow the government [File: Anadolu Culture Center/Handout via Reuters]

Istanbul, Turkey – A court in Istanbul has ordered the continued detention of philanthropist Osman Kavala, in a move that could further strain Turkey’s ties with Europe.

The hearing was the first since a dispute over the case that brought Turkey to the brink of a diplomatic crisis with several Western allies last month, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to expel the ambassadors of 10 countries after they urged for Kavala to be released.

Rights groups have criticised the detention and trial of Kavala, 64, as absurd and politically motivated. The Turkish government has rejected the criticism and said Turkey’s judiciary is independent.

Friday’s court ruling could jeopardise Turkey’s membership in the Council of Europe, which has called for Kavala’s release in line with a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The Istanbul court set the next hearing for January 17, 2022.

Turkey is a member of the 47-nation Council of Europe and is bound by its own national constitution to follow rulings by the ECHR. But Ankara has ignored several of the ECHR’s orders, including those relating to the release of Kavala as well as jailed pro-Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas.

Turkey risks infringement procedures

The Committee of Ministers, which oversees the implementation of the ECHR’s judgements, is due to meet November 30 to December 2 in Strasbourg.

Andrew Cutting, a spokesperson for the Council of Europe, told Al Jazeera the committee’s decisions are expected to be published on December 3.

Cutting said the Committee of Ministers would first have to decide, by a two-thirds majority, to put Turkey on formal notice that they intend to launch infringement proceedings, and then need an additional two-thirds majority vote to formally send the case back to the ECHR to ask whether Turkey had violated the Council of Europe’s human rights convention by failing to implement the court’s ruling.

Ayse Bugra, wife of philanthropist Osman Kavala, talks to the media in front of the court after a hearing of Kavala and 15 others over their role in nationwide protests in 2013, in Istanbul, Turkey, November 26, 2021 [Umit Bektas/Reuters]

At that point, Turkey could become the second country, after Azerbaijan, to ever face infringement proceedings in the Council of Europe.

Nacho Sánchez Amor, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Turkey, who has attended previous hearings, told Al Jazeera the court ruling to keep Kavala in detention undermines recent efforts to mend ties between the European Union and Turkey.

“This today has been the last opportunity of the Turkish state to comply with its obligations under the charter of the Council of Europe, and I am disappointed because I would prefer the infringement procedure could be avoided,” he said.

“But apparently at this very moment, after [seeing] again this challenge to the Council of Europe’s ECHR ruling, we expect a solution coming from the Committee of Ministers to open infringement procedures.”

Strained ties

The diplomatic dispute between Turkey and several Western countries erupted last month when 10 ambassadors to Turkey released a statement calling for Kavala’s immediate release.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the ambassadors were overstepping diplomatic norms and ordered their expulsion but later walked back the threat.

The dispute was resolved after a carefully worded statement from the Western embassies said they would continue to work in accordance with practices laid out in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

The 10 countries – the US, Canada, New Zealand, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Finland – represent Turkey’s NATO allies and some of its largest trade partners.

Erdogan termed the dispute as a win for his insistence the countries not interfere in Turkey’s judicial process, and told supporters the embassies “will be more careful now”.

Rights groups reject ruling

Rights groups have also called on the Committee to take action against Turkey over the Kavala case.

“Osman Kavala’s detention is unlawfully prolonged again by unanimous vote of the court,” Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch wrote on Twitter on Friday, calling for the Committee of Ministers to pursue infringement proceedings against Turkey.

“[Turkey’s] refusal to implement a binding judgement of the ECHR is not only an unconscionable violation of Osman Kavala’s right to liberty, but also a threat to the European human rights system as a whole,” Nils Muiz, Europe Regional Director at Amnesty International, wrote on Twitter.

“It’s up to the member states in the Council of Europe to react to this challenge and initiate infringement proceedings.”

‘No new evidence’

Kavala, 64, is well-known in Turkey for his work with civil society groups, including with the Open Society Foundation, whose Turkish chapter he founded. He was first arrested more than four years ago and charged in 2019 with being part of a conspiracy behind the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. He was acquitted by a Turkish court in February 2020.

But the philanthropist was never released, and hours after the acquittal, prosecutors brought new charges saying he was part of a separate conspiracy relating to a failed 2016 coup attempt.

His case was later merged with that of 51 other people being charged in relation to the 2013 Gezi protests, accused of a range of crimes including espionage, membership in “terror” groups, and trying to violently overthrow the government. If convicted, Kavala could face life in prison.

Kavala has denied the charges, saying the accusations are of a “fantastic nature” and not based on any evidence. He has refused to take part in further hearings, and on Friday he did not join the court via a video conferencing system connected to the Silivri Prison just outside Istanbul where he is kept.

Lawyers, opposition legislators and supporters gather in front of the Justice Palace, the Caglayan Courthouse, as a Turkish court holds a hearing of philanthropist Osman Kavala and 15 others [Umit Bektas/Reuters]

Kavala’s defence lawyers, in a statement, said the court’s rationale for keeping him in detention was based on allegations that were not substantial enough to be mentioned in the prosecution’s case.

Kavala is accused of being in a conspiracy for the 2016 coup attempt with Henry Barkey, an American academic who is being tried in the same case in absentia and denies the charges, an allegation based on cellular phone records showing the two were in close proximity. Defence lawyers pointed out the data does not show the two ever had any phone conversations, a point Barkey has made as well.

The court has also cited allegations Kavala funded the 2013 Gezi protests, which began as a rally by thousands of people against a planned redevelopment project in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, then escalated into larger anti-government protests.

Kavala’s defence lawyers said a report cited by the court from Turkey’s Financial Crimes Investigation Board does not conclude there was any evidence of money being sent to the Gezi Park protesters.

“The stage of the trial shows that no new evidence is presented for someone who has been detained for 4 years with the same accusations and allegations, and that the evidence put forward by the indictment is not even of a quality to raise a simple suspicion,” the lawyers said in a statement.

Source: Al Jazeera