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Turkey sentences human rights activist Kavala to life in prison

Osman Kavala in 2015 (WikiMedia Commons)

On 25 April, in Turkey, human rights activist and philanthropist Osman Kavala has been sentenced to life in prison for his role in anti-government protests. The case raises enormous concerns about the independence of Turkish courts and is expected to damage Turkey's relations with Western countries and rights organizations - as the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) commenced an infringement procedure against Turkey. Since 2019, Ankara has refused to abide by various ECHR rulings.

2013 Gezi Park protests

Kavala, 64, has been detained since 2017. He is accused of financing the 2013 "Gezi Park" anti-government protests and staging a coup against Turkish President Erdoğan. Kavala founded an NGO that focuses on peace-building, named Anadolu Kultur. In his defence statements last week, Kavala said "the aggravated life sentence demanded against me is an assassination that cannot be explained through legal reasons."

Western actors react appalled

Various rights groups and western actors condemned the decision by the Turkish court. "This unjust verdict shows that the Gezi trial was only an attempt to silence independent voices. Today, we have witnessed a travesty of justice of spectacular proportions," said Nils Muiznieks, Europe director at Amnesty International, of the "politically motivated charade".

Kati Piri, a parliament member of the Dutch Labour Party and former member of the European Parliament said to have "no words to describe my anger and sadness over great injustice done by Erdoğan and his courts," she tweeted. "Time for EU countries to take action and kick out Turkey from the Council of Europe."

Speaking outside the court, several opposition politicians and protesters were present to support Kavala. Opposition politician Ozgur Ozel said that "Erdoğan will be condemned before history. He'll be held accountable."

Turkey faces ECHR procedure

Alongside Kati Piri, many call for Turkey's removal from the Council of Europe (CoE), the institution that is tied to the ECHR. The Strasbourg-based court said in its 2019 decision that Kavala's imprisonment is aimed to silence him and set a precedent for other human rights activists. The lengthy infringement procedure could cause Turkey to be suspended from voting rights in the organisation or to be kicked out altogether.

Turkey denies all claims and says the ruling demonstrates that their courts are truly independent. Responding to the CoE, Erdoğan said Turkey would not "recognize those who do not recognize our courts."

Turkey's statements on the fairness of Kavala's trial are difficult to believe. Kavala's defence lawyers pointed out on 25 April's hearing that one of the judges was a former parliament member of Erdoğan Justice and Development Party in 2018. Calls for his removal from this case were not honoured.

Kavala should be freed immediately

The Kavala case is politically motivated, deviant of any plausible evidence. Silencing a major civil rights activist through imprisonment is shocking - the Council of Europe's reaction will be crucial for the credibility of human rights law enforcement in Europe. To start, Osman Kavala should be freed immediately.

Sources: AP Amnesty International Human Rights Watch Netherlands Helsinki Committee

Photo: WikiMedia Commons