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Turkey: Prominent Civic Leader Rearrested After Acquittal

Osman Kavala’s Detention Shows Political Use of Courts

Osman Kavala © 2017 Anadolu Kültür

(Istanbul) – An Istanbul court’s order on February 19, 2020 to detain a prominent civic leader, Osman Kavala, demonstrates the extent to which Turkey's government is abusing its justice system to target perceived critics, Human Rights Watch said today. The order for Kavala’s pretrial detention came the day after another court acquitted him in a separate case and ordered his release.  

The Istanbul chief prosecutor’s office requested Kavala’s arrest on the evening after he and eight other defendants were acquitted on trumped-up charges related to the mass protests in the city’s Gezi Park in 2013. On the following day, hours before the new court order, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan strongly criticized Kavala’s acquittal in the Gezi trial.   

“The immediate re-arrest of Osman Kavala in another bogus investigation after his acquittal on trumped-up charges for the Gezi Park protests shows how Turkey’s criminal justice system is politically manipulated, with detention and prosecutions pursued at the political whim of the president,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Kavala has already been wrongfully imprisoned for 28 months. Extending his detention further is a travesty that should be promptly reversed.”

Kavala has been detained on the allegation that he attempted to “destroy the constitutional order” under Article 309 of the Turkish Penal Code through involvement in the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. The court’s decision refers to his alleged contact with US academic Henri Barkey, who is a suspect in the investigation, but makes no reference to evidence that would support the suspicion of Kavala’s involvement in any criminal activity or conspiracy.

The investigation against Kavala in connection with the July 15 coup attempt dates back to his initial arrest on November 1, 2017. The court at the time detained him both on suspicion of organizing the Gezi protests and for his alleged connections with “Barkey and foreigners who were among the organizers of the coup attempt,” but his lawyers later discovered that he was treated as having been detained twice because of the investigation into the 2016 coup being a separate file. In October 2019, he was formally released from detention in connection with the coup investigation but remained in pretrial detention because of the Gezi case. That detention was repeatedly prolonged and he remained in Silivri Prison.

The chief prosecutor’s request for his re-arrest on February 18, 2020, the day the Istanbul court ruled for Kavala’s acquittal and release in the Gezi trial, was clearly aimed at preventing him leaving prison, Human Rights Watch said.    

In another extraordinary development, media reported that Turkey’s Council of Judges and Prosecutors, which is responsible for judicial appointments and administration, had given permission for an investigation into the judges of Istanbul Heavy Penal Court No. 30, which acquitted Kavala and the others in the Gezi case. The prosecutor in the case has appealed the acquittal decision.

Kavala is the founder of the nongovernmental group Anadolu Kültür A.Ş., which promotes human rights through the arts, and is a leading figure in Turkey’s civil society.

The others acquitted on February 18 are Yiğit Aksakoğlu, the Turkey representative of the Bernard van Leer Foundation, a Dutch philanthropic organization focusing on early child development projects; Mücella Yapıcı, board member of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects; Ali Hakan Altınay, director of the European School of Politics, Istanbul; Çiğdem Mater Utku, a film producer; Mine Özerden, a civil society and arts project coordinator; Serafettin Can Atalay, a lawyer; Tayfun Kahraman, an urban planner; and Yiğit Ali Ekmekçi, deputy chair of Anadolu Kültür.

Seven other people indicted in the case, and for whom there are outstanding warrants for their arrest, have had their cases separated out. They are Handan Meltem Arıkan, a novelist and playwright; Hanzade Hikmet Germiyanoğlu, a humanitarian worker and education consultant; İnanç Ekmekçi; Gökçe Tüylüoğlu, former executive director of the Open Society Foundation in Turkey, which has ceased operations; Memet Ali Alabora, an actor and director; Ayşe Pınar Alabora, an actor; and Can Dündar, journalist and former editor of Cumhuriyet newspaper.  

The Gezi case revolves around a 657-page indictment that makes an implausible and unsupported claim that Kavala led a small group of people in conspiring to finance and organize the 2013 Gezi protests, which spread to cities across Turkey. The 16 accused include people working in the arts, education, and peaceful civic activism.

The indictment is largely incoherent, packed with wild conspiracy theories, described by Kavala in court as a “fantastical fiction.” The evidence consisted of vague accounts of protest movements in other countries at different times, quotations from published books, assertions about the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, a mass of random intercepted phone calls made by the defendants, and speculative claims about their activities.

As the European Court of Human Rights found in its landmark ruling on December 10, 2019, none of what was presented credibly supports the charge that Kavala was involved in a conspiracy that attempted to overthrow the government or to prevent its functioning.

The court concluded that there had been no reasonable suspicion that Kavala had committed a crime either in connection with the Gezi protests or the July 15 coup attempt, and that he had been arbitrarily detained in Turkey since November 2017. The court said that his detention had been carried out and prolonged in bad faith for unlawful purposes, in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and that he should be immediately released.

The court found violations of Article 5/1(c) of the European Convention, which sets out lawful grounds for detention; Article 5/4, which guarantees all detainees a right to a speedy review of the legality of their detention; and Article 18, which prohibits restricting rights under the European Convention­­ – in this case, to liberty – for ulterior motives. In calling for Kavala’s immediate release, the court stressed that “any continuation of the applicant’s pretrial detention in the present case will entail a prolongation of the violation of Article 5/1 and of Article 18.”

Kavala was first detained by police on October 18, 2017 at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport as he was returning from a visit with representatives of the Goethe Institute to Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey, where he supported a project for Syrian refugees.

A court ordered him to be held in pretrial detention on November 1, 2017, allegedly on suspicion that he organized the Gezi Park protests and was involved in the attempted military coup. He and the 15 others were indicted in March 2019, and their trial began on June 24.

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