Istanbul, Turkey – A Turkish court has extended the detention of philanthropist Osman Kavala, whose trial on charges related to the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the 2016 coup attempt has drawn keen interest from Western governments, and could jeopardise Turkey’s standing in the Council of Europe.
The court agreed with prosecutors who said Kavala, 64, should be kept in prison, where he has been since 2017, due to the seriousness of charges against him, and set the next hearing for November 26. Kavala faces life in prison if found guilty.
Representatives of the European Union, as well as diplomats from half a dozen European countries and the United States, were on hand to observe the hearing in a court in Istanbul on Friday.
Kavala and 51 other defendants are facing a range of charges, from espionage to membership of “terror” groups, to trying to violently overthrow the government, dating as far back as 2013, when Istanbul witnessed large protests against the government. The decision to try them en masse has been condemned by rights groups.
Turkey has ignored several decisions from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to release Kavala, and faces losing its membership or voting rights in the Council of Europe as a result.
“What is striking about the charges brought against me is not merely the fact that they are not based on any evidence. They are allegations of a fantastic nature based on conspiracy theories overstepping the bounds of reason,” Kavala told the court via video link from a prison just outside Istanbul.
“I hope that the merging of the lawsuits would serve to a better understanding of the threats facing the Turkish judiciary. I hope Turkey never sees such an indictment prepared again.”
Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch, which is also closely following the trial, slammed the merging of lawsuits in a statement on Twitter.
“Merging Osman Kavala’s trial with an unrelated one that preceded it by over 3 years gave another excuse to prolong his detention,” she said.
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Acquittals and retrial
Kavala was first detained in October 2017, but a formal indictment against him did not come until March 2019, when he and other rights advocates and journalists were accused of being behind protests in 2013 at Istanbul’s Gezi Park that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has often described as an attempt to overthrow him.
Those charges also alleged the 2013 Gezi protests were orchestrated by George Soros, and the Open Society Foundation, the Turkish chapter of which Kavala was a founding member.
Kavala, and his alleged conspiracy with Soros, became a frequent topic in President Erdogan’s public speeches.
In February 2020, Kavala was acquitted and ordered released, but hours later Turkish prosecutors filed additional charges, alleging he was part of a conspiracy with the US-based scholar, Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara blames for orchestrating a failed 2016 coup.
That indictment relies partly on secret evidence, as well as mobile phone signals and other evidence to tie Kavala with an American academic, Henri Barkey, who is being tried in absentia.
Rights groups have called the case “absurd”, and Kavala has told court hearings that “my life experience, my world views and ethical values do not allow me to support coups”.
In March, Kavala told Reuters news agency that “the claim that I planned, directed and financed the Gezi protests was an extremely fantastical one”.
The subsequent charges he was involved in the 2016 coup attempt, Kavala told Reuters, were “properly surrealist fiction”.
The case against Kavala has continued to expand over the years, with prosecutors successfully merging it with other dossiers related to the 2013 Gezi protests as well as the 2016 coup attempt.
The current trial includes 51 other defendants, including 35 fans of the Istanbul-based football club Besiktas who are accused of attempting to overthrow the state during the Gezi protests.
While all 35 were acquitted of the charges in 2015, that decision was overturned in April and the case was subsequently merged with Kavala’s trial.
Rights groups say the merger of several different cases with Kavala’s is part of a strategy by the government to prolong the philanthropist’s detention and make it more difficult to hear detailed defences from each party.
Kavala’s case has been followed closely by European governments and the US, and calls for his release at the diplomatic level have gone unheeded by Ankara over the years.
“The specious charges against Kavala, his ongoing detention, and the continuing delays in the conclusion of his trial, including through the merger of cases against him, undermine respect for the rule of law and democracy,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in February.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry responded at the time by saying “no country or person can give orders to Turkish courts about legal proceedings”.
Turkey, which has long sought to become an EU member, is a member of the Council of Europe, and a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
As a result, court cases in Turkey can be appealed to the ECHR, whose rulings are binding on Turkey as long as it remains a full member of the Council of Europe.
The ECHR’s rulings to free Kavala, as well as several other prominent defendants on trial in Turkey, have been ignored by Ankara, however.
In September, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers said it would vote in a meeting at the end of November on whether to formally start infringement proceedings against Turkey.
The Council would ask the ECHR to formally declare if Turkey has violated the convention on human rights, then decide on whether to suspend the country from the body altogether.
Europe is Turkey’s largest trade partner. Turkey would become the second country, after Azerbaijan, to face infringement proceedings by the body.