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Life sentence for philanthropist Kavala sparks outrage in Turkey, int’l community

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An aggravated life sentence handed down by a Turkish court on Monday to prominent  businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala on controversial charges that had already seen him locked up without a conviction for more than four years has attracted condemnation and anger from within and without Turkey.

An İstanbul court sentenced Kavala, who was accused of financing large-scale protests against the government in 2013 and involvement in a failed military coup in 2016, to aggravated life in prison on charges of “attempting to topple the government,” while sentencing seven other defendants to 18 years in jail each on charges of aiding the attempt.

Unless an appeals court overturns the verdict, Kavala will spend the rest of his life in prison, local media reports said.

Among those who condemned the decision in Turkey were prominent figures from the opposition parties, including the Republican People’s Party (CHP), its ally, the İYİ (Good) Party, the Felicity Party (SP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu on Monday described the sentence as yet another move “trampling on the law” by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which “has haunted our country like a nightmare.”

“Gezi resistance was a national movement dedicated to solidarity, peace, brotherhood and democracy. … We’re almost there; we will end this persecution and restore justice!” Kılıçdaroğlu said, referring to the elections scheduled for June 2023.

The protests in 2013 erupted over government plans to demolish Gezi Park in Taksim. They quickly turned into mass anti-government demonstrations that were violently suppressed by the government, leading to the death of 11 protestors due to the use of disproportionate force by the police.

While CHP parliamentary group deputy chairman Özgür Özel said the sentences were handed down “only to please” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whom he described as “a vampire who sucks the blood of justice,” İstanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu from the party said the court’s decision “hurt the consciences of millions of people.”

Defining the case as “the AKP’s trial of vengeance,” İYİ Vice Chairman Bahadır Erdem also brought to mind that of the three judges in the case, one was a former prospective parliamentary candidate from the ruling AKP and one expressed a dissenting opinion that the defendants should be released.

“No power that politicizes the institution of justice and institutionalizes injustice can prevail!” SP spokesperson Birol Aydın said in a tweet, referring to Kavala’s trial.

Speaking to the press outside the İstanbul courthouse following Monday’s hearing, HDP lawmaker Filiz Kerestecioğlu expressed support for the defendants, saying their only crime was to keep Gezi Park as it was.

“We are at a crossroads … and now is the time to make a choice. … Do we want a democratic, free Turkey, or do we want to continue to be judged by its subservient judiciary, by judges who can’t even lift their heads up to make eye contact in court. We don’t deserve this, the people of Turkey don’t deserve this,” she added, pointing to the 2023 elections.

Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) MP Mustafa Yeneroğlu also stated that there was no legal basis for giving Kavala a harsh punishment and that it was based on conspiracy theories rather than the law.

“At this point, the handing down of wrongful convictions as a result of trials that violate even the most basic rules of criminal law with the motive of hatred and revenge is the result of the political power’s domination of the judiciary,” Yeneroğlu said.

Also speaking to reporters in front of the court, Akif Burak Atlar, a representative from the Taksim Solidarity Platform, an umbrella group of Turkish dissidents, said they rejected the court’s “politically motivated” decision as “the democratic forces of this country that believe in justice, democracy and the rule of law.”

In addition to prominent figures in Turkey, two leading European Parliament ministers also condemned the court’s “regrettable” decision in a written statement on Monday, noting that it was “in clear contempt to the rulings of the European Court [of] Human Rights [ECtHR] and will surely bring about consequences in the infringement proceedings ongoing at the Council of Europe [CoE].”

In February, Europe’s top human rights body, the CoE, launched infringement procedures against Turkey for refusing to abide by a ruling of the ECtHR that called for Kavala’s release on grounds that his rights had been violated.

European Parliament Standing Rapporteur for Turkey Nacho Sánchez Amor and Sergey Lagodinsky, chair of the EU-Turkey Parliamentary Delegation, expressed solidarity with Kavala, the other defendants and their families, adding, “There is little to [no] EU perspective for the current Turkey, which is sliding away from the international consensus on a rule-based order while disrespecting its own international commitments.”

Nils Muižnieks, Amnesty International’s Europe director, also said the conviction of Kavala was a “devastating blow” for human rights and “a travesty of justice of spectacular proportions.”

“The court’s decision defies all logic. … This unjust verdict shows that the Gezi trial was only an attempt to silence independent voices,” he added.

Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch said the conviction was “the worst possible outcome to this show trial.”

A leading figure in Turkey’s civil society, 64-year-old Kavala was born in Paris, educated in the UK and ran a cultural center before being thrust to prominence. He was accused of financing protests against then-prime minister Erdoğan’s government during large-scale protests in 2013 and involvement in a failed military coup in 2016. Monday’s ruling only covered the case stemming from the 2013 unrest.

Kavala’s plight had soured relations between Ankara and Western nations, and a diplomatic crisis was triggered last year when Turkey threatened to expel 10 Western ambassadors, including the US envoy, after they demanded Kavala’s release.

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