A Turkish court has sentenced prominent civil rights activist and philanthropist Osman Kavala to life in prison without the possibility of parole, finding him guilty of attempting to overthrow the government amid mass anti-government protests in 2013.
Kavala (64) had been in prison for 4½ years without conviction and has denied charges against him over the Gezi protests, which began with small protests in an Istanbul park in 2013 and snowballed into nationwide anti-government unrest.
The United States said it was “deeply troubled and disappointed” by the sentencing.
It is “unfair” and “inconsistent with respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law,” the US State Department said in a statement.
The court also sentenced seven other people to 18 years in prison each for helping to try to overthrow the government and ordered their arrest. The court said it decided to acquit Kavala of the espionage charges due to lack of evidence.
The courtroom was packed with more than 200 people, including opposition members, Western diplomats and rights activists.
Supporters of the defendants yelled at the judges as the judgment was read. Many of them wept when the seven defendants, including 71-year-old architect Mucella Yapici, were arrested.
“This is just the beginning; the struggle continues,” chanted the crowd.
In his final words before the verdict, Kavala said the prosecutor’s request for a life sentence was based on “evidence that is not evidence” and amounted to “an act of murder by the use of justice.” “.
Kavala played a major role in the development of Turkish civil society before being detained in 2017, from a publishing house that aimed to foster social change after Turkey’s 1980 coup to promoting culture through his organization Anadolu Kultur.
The United States has called on Turkey to release Kavala.
“We remain gravely concerned about the continued judicial harassment of civil society, media, political and business leaders in Turkey,” the State Department said in its statement.
Reacting to the sentencing of Kavala and seven other defendants for aiding him, Nils Muiznieks, Europe Director of Amnesty International, said: “Today we are witnessing 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 all who believe in justice and human rights activism in Turkey and beyond.
“The court’s decision defies all logic. . . This unfair verdict shows that the Gezi trial was only an attempt to silence independent voices.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and activists said the case was politically motivated and part of a crackdown on dissent under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – charges the government denies.
The ECHR called for Kavala’s release in late 2019 and ruled that his detention was aimed at silencing the philanthropist, whose civil society projects aimed to foster social change.
Ankara now risks being suspended from the Council of Europe’s rights monitoring body, after the launch of an infringement procedure due to its continued detention.
Emma Sinclair-Webb, Human Rights Watch’s representative in Turkey, said the verdict was an “active challenge against the Council of Europe”.
The embassies of Turkey’s Western allies, including the United States and Germany, echoed calls for Kavala’s release last year, prompting threats from Erdogan to expel their ambassadors.
Erdogan compared Gezi protesters to Kurdish militants and those accused of orchestrating a failed coup in 2016. He accused Kavala of trying to overthrow the government, saying Western allies would not release “bandits , murderers and terrorists” in their countries.
Kavala was acquitted in 2020 of charges related to the Gezi protests. Hours later, another court ordered his arrest for attempting to overthrow the constitutional order linked to the attempted coup.
That court later decided to free him on that charge, but ordered his detention on charges of espionage in the same case, a move which critics say was intended to circumvent the ECHR ruling.
Kavala’s acquittal along with eight others in the Gezi trial was overturned last year and the case was combined with the other charges against him.
Sera Kadigil, an MP from the Workers’ Party of Turkey, said the verdict was the AK party’s revenge for the Gezi protests and that the court had carried out the government’s instructions.
“There is no justice in this country. You can’t talk about an impartial court. This ruling made it official,” she told Reuters. – Reuters/AP