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Turkey court keeps civil rights activist in jail

October 8, 2021

Osman Kavala told an Istanbul court the charges against him "are not based on any evidence." He's spent years in pretrial detention, and was arrested again on separate charges hours after a Turkish court acquitted him.

Osman Kavala, gives evidence to a court in Istanbul on charges of espionage and trying to overthrow the state
The ECHR has demanded Turkey free Osman Kavala, after several years in prison without a convictionImage: ANKA

A Turkish court on Friday ordered civil society leader Osman Kavala be kept behind bars on charges he said were based on "conspiracy theories," four years after he was imprisoned without conviction.

The Parisian-born businessman and philanthropist faces charges linked to 2013 anti-government protests and a failed military coup in 2016.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ordered his release in December 2019.

What happened at the hearing?

US and European diplomats attended the trial which included a group of football supporters alleged to have been part of the 2013 protests.

About 35 defendants out of 52 charged in two separate cases combined into one were present in the courtroom.

Kavala was charged with allegedly trying to overthrow the Turkish government and espionage.

He faces a 20-year prison sentence without parole if convicted.

The 64-year-old Kavala himself denied the charges calling them "slanderous" and "an assassination attempt against my dignity."

"It is totally devoid of evidence, just like the accusation of espionage that was fabricated later,'' he told the court.

"What is striking about the charges brought against me is not merely the fact that they are not based on any evidence," he said. "They are allegations of a fantastic nature based on conspiracy theories overstepping the bounds of reason.''

Osman Kavala: Imprisoned activist, philanthropist

Acquitted over protest, then charged with 'coup' participation instead

At the end of the session, the Istanbul court set a new hearing for November 26, with Kavala ordered to remain behind bars until that date.

European Parliament Turkey rapporteur Nacho Sanchez said Friday's session was "a missed opportunity for authorities to respect their international commitments."

Turkey risks sanctions, potentially even exclusion, from the 47-member Council of Europe when it next meets on November 30 unless Kavala has been released.

Human rights groups and some Western governments see his detention as part of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's crackdown on dissent.

Kavala was originally cleared in February 2020 of being part of nationwide demonstrations that started at Istanbul's Gezi Park in 2013.

But he was immediately re-arrested for supposedly supporting the 2016 coup attempt which Turkey blames on US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.An appeals court later overturned the Gezi Park acquittals, setting the stage for Friday's trial.

Mass arrests were common in the aftermath of the Gezi protests, and even more so in the months and years following the supposed coup attempt, when Turkey jailed almost 80,000 alleged Gulen supporters and suspended or sacked around 150,000 public sector workers accused of ties to the group.

A recent US State Department report singled out suspicious deaths of persons in custody, forced disappearances, torture and arbitrary arrests as NATO member Turkey's most pressing human rights issues. 

A woman takes a photo of policemen after troops involved in the coup surrendered on the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey July 16, 2016
Turkish authorities have hit hard on dissidents after the failed coup of July 2016Image: Reuters/M.Sezer

jc/msh (Reuters, AP, AFP)