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Kavala case: A break with Europe?

Pelin Ünker
October 22, 2021

The long detention of philanthropist Osman Kavala and Turkey's refusal to acknowledge an ECHR ruling could cost the country its membership or voting rights in the Council of Europe at the end of November.

Poster in German with photo of Osman Kavala
Germany has also seen several protests calling for Osman Kavala's releaseImage: Christophe Gateau/dpa/picture alliance

Turkish philanthropist and activist Osman Kavala has never been convicted of a crime — yet he has been in prison for almost four years in Turkey, despite  the ruling of a top European court.

On September 17, the Council of Europe issued Turkey its final warning to release the 64-year-old entrepreneur, warning that infringement proceedings against Ankara would start at the end of November if Kavala was not released by then. 

But Turkey, so far, has refused to acknowledge the ruling made by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on December 10, 2019, which stated that the European Convention on Human Rights had been violated and therefore ordered Kavala to be released immediately.

The ECHR concluded that Kavala's arrest was based on political motives, without any reasonable evidence backing the accusations. However, Turkish officials did not implement the decision and said the ECHR's judgment was not final.

And now, several countries are applying pressure on Turkey.

Osman Kavala: Imprisoned activist, philanthropist

Ambassadors' statement

On Monday, ambassadors from Germany, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the US urged a "just and speedy" resolution to Kavala's case.

In a joint statement, the ambassadors of the 10 countries called on Turkey to follow the rulings of the Council of Europe, a human rights body it joined in 1950. "The continuing delays in his trial ... cast a shadow over respect for democracy, the rule of law and transparency in the Turkish judiciary system," said the statement.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slammed the ambassadors' action, threatening to expel them from the country.

"I told our foreign minister: We can't have the luxury of hosting this lot in our country. Is it for you to give Turkey such a lesson? Who do you think you are?," he said Thursday.The ambassadors were summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before Erdogan's statement and were accused of "politicizing the Kavala case."

What is Kavala accused of?

Kavala is charged with financing nationwide Gezi Park protests in 2013 and with alleged involvement in an attempted coup in 2016.

He was taken into custody on October 18, 2017, following a meeting with the German Goethe Institute concerning a joint project with Anadolu Kultur, a nonprofit organization in Istanbul supporting cultural and social projects.

After two weeks in custody,  Kavala was arrested on November 1, 2017, in connection with the Gezi Park protests on the charges of "attempting to overthrow the constitutional order" and "attempting to overthrow the government." He was subsequently sent to the maximum-security prison Silivri outside of Istanbul.

He was  acquitted in February 2020, but a fresh arrest warrant was issued against him only hours later,  this time for a separate case accusing him of being involved in the June 15, 2016, coup attempt.

Nearly a month later, he was cleared of this accusation, too,  but was kept in remand detention on the charge of "political or military espionage."

In May 2020, the European Court of Human Rights rejected Turkey's request for the chamber judgment in Osman Kavala's application to be referred to the Grand Chamber, finalizing its judgement of December 2019.

Lawyers and opposition lawmakers in front of the Caglayan Courthouse in Istanbul in May 2021
Turkey has seen protests against the Gezi trial: 'Gezi cannot be judged," reads the bannerImage: DILARA SENKAYA/REUTERS

Several trials merged

In September 2020, the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor's Office prepared a new indictment, accusing Kavala of collaborating with Henri Barkey, a prominent Turkey scholar in the United States, and of "having taken a role in the coup attempt."

In January 2021, his acquittal in the Gezi Park trial was reversed. At the second hearing of Osman Kavala's trial on coup and espionage charges, held on February 5, 2021, the court ruled to join this case with the Gezi Park trial and ordered the continuation of Kavala's detention.

On July 28, 2021, the Gezi trial was merged with the Carsi trial, in which 35 members of the Besiktas football fan group Carsi went on retrial for allegedly "organizing a plot against the government during the Gezi Park protests." The court set November 26, 2021, as the date for the next hearing.

Kavala's attorneys have noted that the indictment of September 2020 was no more than a presumptive fiction and not based on any concrete evidence. Human rights organizations across the world have strongly criticized Kavala's arrest and said the charges are political.

Osman Kavala speaking
Kavala has supported several civil society causesImage: Wiktor Dabkowski/dpa/picture alliance

Who is Osman Kavala?

Kavala is one of the most prominent civil society figures in Turkey. The businessman has contributed to the establishment of several publishing companies in Turkey since the early 1980s, going on to support numerous civil society organizations a decade later.

In 2002, he founded Anadolu Kultur. The organization's objectives included enabling the production and promotion of  arts and culture in Turkey, supporting local initiatives, emphasizing cultural diversity and rights and strengthening local and international collaborations. 

He was also a founding member of philanthropist George Soros' Open Society Foundation in Turkey.