ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A Turkish court on Monday sentenced prominent Turkish civil rights activist and philanthropist Osman Kavala to life in prison without parole, finding him guilty of attempting to overthrow the government with mass protests in 2013. Western governments and rights groups strongly criticized the ruling, with one calling it “a travesty of justice of spectacular proportions.”
The court in Istanbul also sentenced seven other defendants, including 71-year-old architect Mucella Yapici, to 18 years in prison each for “aiding” the attempt. It ordered that the activists, who were not in custody, be immediately arrested, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.
The verdict, which is likely to harm Turkey's ties with Western nations, comes as Europe’s top human rights body, the Council of Europe, launched infringement procedures against Turkey for refusing to abide by a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, which in 2019 called for Kavala’s release on grounds that his rights had been violated.
Kavala, 64, has been jailed in Silivri prison, on the outskirts of Istanbul, since he was detained Oct. 18, 2017, accused of financing the protests. He and other defendants denied all the accusations and are expected to appeal the verdicts.
Human rights groups say Kavala was prosecuted with flimsy evidence and that the case is politically motivated. Kavala is the founder of a nonprofit organization, Anadolu Kultur, which focuses on cultural and artistic projects promoting peace and dialogue.
Supporters of Kavala and the seven other defendants immediately protested the verdicts Monday, shouting slogans in support of the 2013 protests that morphed from a dispute over building a mall in an Istanbul park into wider demonstrations against the government of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the verdict “blatantly contradicts the constitutional standards and international obligations that Turkey commits itself to as a member of the Council of Europe and EU accession candidate.”
"We expect Osman Kavala to be released immediately -- the European Court of Human Rights has bindingly obliged Turkey to do so,“ Baerbock said.
The rights group PEN America called the verdict a “dark moment for Turkey” while Nils Muiznieks, Amnesty International’s director for Europe, said it amounted to a “travesty of justice of spectacular proportions.”
“The court’s decision defies all logic. The prosecuting authorities have repeatedly failed to provide any evidence that substantiates the baseless charges of attempting to overthrow the government,” Muiznieks said in a statement. "We continue to call for Osman Kavala’s and his co-defendants’ immediate release as they appeal these draconian verdicts.”
Ozgur Ozel, an opposition legislator whose party frequently questions the independence of Turkey's courts, accused the judiciary of allegedly meeting the wishes of Erdogan, who is now president.
“Justice did not prevail here today — the will of the person who rules this country was carried out,” he told reporters outside the courthouse.
Ozel also denounced the trial as an attempt by Erdogan to “demonize the protests that were extremely peaceful and were staged out of environmental concerns."
Asked for his final words in court on Monday, Kavala said: “The aggravated life sentence demanded against me is an assassination that cannot be explained through legal reasons,” according to the Media and Law Studies Association group which has been monitoring the trial.
In his defense statements Friday, Kavala rejected the accusations once again, insisting that he had merely taken pastries and face masks to the protesters. He said allegations that he directed the protests are “not plausible.”
“The fact that I spent 4.5 years of my life in prison is an irreparable loss for me. My only consolation is the possibility that my experience will contribute to a better understanding of the grave problems of the judiciary,” Kavala told the court by videoconference from Silivri.
Kavala was initially acquitted in February 2020 of charges that connected him with the 2013 Gezi Park protests. As supporters awaited his release, Kavala was rearrested on new charges linking him to Turkey's 2016 coup attempt. The acquittal was later overturned and the case was merged with that relating to the coup attempt, which the Turkish government blames on the network of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. Gulen denies any links to the attempted coup.
The court on Monday acquitted Kavala of charges linked to the coup attempt, saying there was insufficient evidence, Anadolu reported.
In October, Kavala’s continued detention sparked a diplomatic crisis between Turkey and 10 Western countries, including the United States, France and Germany, after they called for his release on the fourth anniversary of his imprisonment.
Erdogan has accused Kavala, of being the “Turkish branch” of billionaire U.S. philanthropist George Soros, whom the Turkish leader alleges has been behind insurrections in many countries. He has threatened to expel Western envoys for meddling in Turkey’s internal affairs.
The European Court of Human Rights’ 2019 decision said Kavala’s imprisonment aimed to silence him and other human rights defenders and wasn’t supported by evidence of an offense.
The lengthy infringement process by the Council of Europe, a 47-member bloc that upholds human rights, could lead to the suspension of Turkey’s voting rights or membership in the organization.
Erdogan has dismissed the infringement process, saying Turkey would not “recognize those who do not recognize our courts.” Turkey had argued that Kavala’s detention was linked to the 2016 attempted coup and not the previous charges that were reviewed by the European court.