An Istanbul court Friday extended the detention of a civil society leader whose jailing without a conviction for nearly four years could see Turkey sanctioned by Europe's top human rights body.
Parisian-born philanthropist and activist Osman Kavala faces a string of charges linked to 2013 anti-government protests and a failed military putsch in 2016.
Rights groups and some Western governments view his detention as a symbol of President Recept Tayyip Erdogan's growing intolerance of dissent.
Kavala was acquitted in February 2020 in connection with the 2013 rallies -- widely seen as the first serious challenge to Erdogan's nearly two-decade rule -- but then immediately rearrested on charges linked to the coup plot.
Diplomats from the US and eight European countries attended the packed courtroom in a mega-case that now involves 52 suspects -- including a group of football supporters alleged to have taken part in the 2013 unrest.
The 64-year-old faces between 20 years and life in prison if convicted of charges that include trying to overturn the constitutional order and espionage.
"What is striking about the charges brought against me is not merely the fact that they are not based on any evidence," Kavala told the court.
"They are allegations of a fantastic nature based on conspiracy theories overstepping the bounds of reason."
- Litmus test -
Kavala's fate is widely seen as a litmus test on the state of political and social freedoms under Erdogan.
The powerful Turkish leader unleashed a sweeping crackdown that saw tens of thousands detained or stripped of their government jobs after the 2016 coup attempt.
The purges in the military and state institutions continue to this day.
The Council of Europe warned last month that it would launch disciplinary proceedings against Turkey "in the event that (Kavala) is not released before" the human rights body's next meeting on November 30-December 2.
The Istanbul court scheduled another hearing for November 26.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) also ordered Kavala's release in December 2019 and has since reaffirmed its call in a series of increasingly urgent statements.
Disciplinary proceedings could result in the suspension of a member state's voting rights and the loss membership in the Strasbourg-based body.
Launching the proceedings needs approval from 32 of the Council's 47 member states.
- 'Another excuse' -
Erdogan has taken a clear personal interest in Kavala's case.
He branded the philanthropist the "red (George) Soros" of Turkey after his initial arrest in October 2017 and last year vowed to never accept "the Kavalas of this world".
The 2013 case also involves 35 members of the main fan group of Istanbul's Besiktas football club.
The club's Carsi support group played a front-line role in the protests against then-prime minister Erdogan.
All 35 were acquitted in 2015 of charges that the group's involvement in the protests constituted an attempt to overthrow the state.
But a higher court overturned that acquittal in April and the case was later merged with Kavala's trial.
"Merging Osman Kavala’s trial with an unrelated one that preceded it by over three years gave another excuse to prolong his detention," said Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Right Watch in Turkey.
Russia in 2017-2019 was the first country to have its voting rights suspended when the Council of Europe took actions against its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in 2014.