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Turkey Sentences Activist Osman Kavala to Life in Prison

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A Turkish court sentenced philanthropist and human rights defender Osman Kavala to life imprisonment. Credit: Janbazian, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

Philanthropist and human rights activist Osman Kavala was sentenced to life in prison by a court in Turkey on Monday. The decision was condemned by the US, Germany, and a host of international human rights organizations.

The conviction, which found 64-year-old Kavala guilty of attempting to overthrow the government by financing nationwide protests in 2013, was inconsistent with respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said in a written statement on Monday.

“The United States is deeply troubled and disappointed by the court’s decision to convict Osman Kavala today,” Price said. “We again call on Turkey to release Osman Kavala, in keeping with European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rulings, as well as to free all others arbitrarily incarcerated.”

The U.S government is “gravely concerned by the continued judicial harassment of civil society, media, political and business leaders in Turkey, including through prolonged pretrial detention, overly broad claims of support for terrorism, and criminal insult cases,” Price said.

Turkey defies Council of Europe deadline to release Kavala

Turkey had defied a February 2nd deadline set by the Council of Europe to release Kavala. The Council then started infringement proceedings, meaning Turkey could be suspended from the organization.

“The people of Turkey deserve to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms without fear of retribution,” Price said. “The right to exercise freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association is enshrined in Turkey’s constitution and its international law obligations and OSCE commitments.”

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock condemned the ruling. The court’s decision “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,” she said in a written statement.

“We expect Osman Kavala to be released immediately—the European Court of Human Rights has bindingly committed Turkey to do so,“ Baerbock said.

Amnesty International called the sentence absurd. “Today, we have witnessed a travesty of justice of spectacular proportions. This verdict deals a devastating blow not only to Osman Kavala, his co-defendants and their families, but to everyone who believes in justice and human rights activism in Turkey and beyond,” said Nils Muižnieks, Amnesty International’s Europe Director.

Erdogan called Kavala the “Turkish Soros”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan once called Kavala the “Turkish Soros,” implying in a disparaging way that he, like American billionaire George Soros, had been supporting civil society institutions.

The foundation, established by Kavala in 2002, finances Kurdish cultural projects and supports Syrian refugees, according to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

In October 2021, Erdogan declared 10 foreign ambassadors—including seven from Europe—as persona non grata after they called for the release of Osman Kavala.

In the fall of 2013, Turkey saw its most massive protests against Recep Erdogan’s regime. Members of the new Gezi Party, named after the Istanbul park of the same name, took part in the protests. The authorities’ decision to demolish the park sparked the initial wave of outrage.

The Gezi Party was registered in Ankara by a group of liberal Turkish intellectuals and artists. Party members hoped to win parliamentary elections and carry out democratic reforms.

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