On April 27, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended the life sentence handed down against businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala, saying it is in line with Turkish law.
Erdogan's comments came during the Night of Power, an Islamic festival that commemorates the holiest night in the fasting month of Ramadan. Erdogan said a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling to release Kavala is no longer valid.
The Kavala case, however, is calling into question the impartiality of Turkey’s judiciary, especially in light of a decision last month to transfer the case of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia, whose Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has been accused of complicity.
That decision by a lower court justice was condemned by Khashoggi’s fiance and human rights advocates.
Regarding the Kavala sentence, Erdogan said:
“There is law in this country, there is a judiciary in this country, and this judiciary has made and will make this decision in line with what it believes and knows so that what is right will prevail.”
That is misleading. In fact, Erdogan and his allies have tipped the scales by engineering a vast, politicized overhaul of the judicial system in the aftermath of an attempted coup in 2016.
Kavala initially was arrested and jailed in October 2017. He was accused of espionage and organizing the 2013 Gezi Park anti-government protests and involvement in the 2016 coup to overthrow Erdogan’s government.
In March 2019, Kavala and 15 others were formally indicted in connection with the 2013 Gezi protests, which spread nationwide and turned violent.
They were charged with attempting to overthrow the government, but the ECHR found no evidence of an offense by Kavala ruled he should be freed.
Although the ECHR’s decisions are legally binding on Turkey, that never happened. On April 25, a Turkish court nonetheless convicted Kavala and sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Seven others were also sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Following the Kavala verdict, a group of Turkish politicians decried the sentence. They included former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who heads the opposition Future Party.
“If you weaken justice with long detention periods and completely disregard the rule of law with contradictory decisions, then there would be no respect left for the rulings you hand down,” Davutoglu said on Twitter.
In his early years leading the Turkish government, Erdogan was praised for steps such as abolishing the death penalty.
But following the failed coup, his regime jailed more than 4,000 judges. The New York Times reported in 2019 that they were replaced by Erdogan loyalists, many fresh out of college.
“Many are at best timid about confronting power, and at worst acting as a tool of enforcement for the government, especially as it pursues its opponents,” the Times said.
Erdogan gained political control over Turkey’s highest judicial body, the Council of Judges and Prosecutors, which names judges to the Supreme Court and appoints and removes lower judges.
That followed a 2017 constitutional referendum that granted Erdogan exceptional powers, including the ability to intervene in the judiciary.
Mehmet Ali Kulat, the manager of a political research company, told the Times: “At least 15 million Turkish citizens are caught up in the criminal justice process as witnesses or defendants, since there are 7.5 million active criminal cases.”
Kavala, 64, inherited his family business and is known for using his wealth to support human rights and cultural projects in Turkey.
Kavala founded various initiatives focused on cultural diversity, dialogue and the arts. Since the 1990s, he has worked on developing civil society. He is chair of Anatolian Culture organization, which promotes human rights through art, with a focus on Armenia, with which Turkey has no diplomatic ties.
Erdogan had called Kavala a communist agent of Hungarian-American businessman George Soros. Kavala was a board member in Soros’ Open Society Foundations in Turkey, which worked on strengthening education and women rights, in addition to the EU accession process.
Turkey accused Soros of funding the Gezi protests as well playing a behind-the-scenes role in the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. In the defense statement Kavala released before his final verdict, he said those allegations were neither true nor logical, and were aimed at discrediting those involved in the protests. He called accusations against him by Erdogan and other politicians baseless.
“After losing four and a half years of my life, the only aspect I can find solace in is the possibility that the process I experienced could contribute to confronting the crucial problems in the judiciary of Turkey; thus, those who will be brought to justice in the future could receive a fairer treatment,” Kavala said.
Amnesty International said Kavala is being punished for his human rights work and to send a warning to Turkish society.
Following the verdict, Germany summoned Turkey’s ambassador in Berlin to urge Kavala’s immediate release. Germany warned that the conviction contradicts Turkey’s membership in the Council of Europe.
Regarding the Khashoggi case, the lower-court judge approved its transfer to Saudi Arabia on grounds that none of the members of the alleged assassination team were in Turkey. But critics pointed to Erdogan’s efforts to mend political fences as Turkey’s economy melts down.
Last week, Erdogan last week made his first visit to Saudi Arabia in five years, and photos showed him embracing bin Salman. In contrast, after Khashoggi’s 2018 murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Erdogan had blamed it on the “highest levels” of the Saudi government.
“Turkey’s regional Realpolitik in resolving tensions with other countries shouldn’t include sacrificing justice for Jamal Khashoggi,” said Michael Page, HRW’s deputy Middle East director.
Erdogan’s purge of the judicial system was sweeping. The Turkey Tribunal, a group that monitors human rights violations and Turkey’s courts, said 4,664 judges and prosecutors had been suspended or dismissed since July 2016; all but 294 faced criminal investigation.
Former judge Yavuz Aydin said he was dismissed and accused of terrorism. The police raided his home and seized his computers and other belongings while he wasn’t there. He later fled with his family to Romania and paid smugglers for the trip because their passports had been confiscated.
In May 2020, Reuters reported on the constant reshuffling of judges and prosecutors in Turkey to keep courts under control. The news agency said more than 500 judges were in jail.
“The judiciary has been used as an instrument to advance political agendas in Turkey for decades. Under Erdogan, his opponents say, it has been deployed as a political cudgel and hollowed out to an unprecedented degree,” Reuters reported.
Lawmaker Zeynel Emre, a member of the Republican People’s Party, told Reuters that while Turkey’s judicial system had never been totally independent, “a period like this where the government wields the judiciary like a sword on politics and especially the opposition is unprecedented.”
“The Turkish courts and prosecutors have engaged in a series of tactics to circumvent the authority of the European Court and the Council of Europe, using domestic court decisions to prolong Kavala’s detention and extend the life of baseless prosecutions,” HRW wrote.
“The courts have issued sham release orders, initiated multiple criminal proceedings against Kavala on the same facts, and separated and re-joined case files accusing him of bogus offenses.”
HRW said European Union member states should “urgently review their engagement” with Turkey for its failure to release Kavala under the European Court of Human Rights order.