Osman Kavala: From the 2013’s Gezi Park Protests to Life Imprisonment
Author: Laura Libertini
Department: Europe Team
On April 25th, 2022, Turkish human rights defender and businessman Osman Kavala was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole along with his seven co-defendants. The charges go back to their alleged pivotal role in the Gezi Park uprisings that took place in Istanbul in 2013 and to their part in the attempted coup d’état in 2016 (Human Rights Watch, 2022).
In May 2013, demolition work started in the Gezi Park, a green area in the centre of Istanbul, immediately triggering environmental protests with residents occupying the area. By the end of the month, the Turkish police intervened violently to suppress the protests. The protests intensified in June and July 2013, spreading to multiple towns and cities across the country. Four civilians and two police officials were killed, while thousands of people were injured (ECtHR, 2019). The protests intensified the tension between the conservative wing and a wide variety of marginalised groups quarrelling over public space, the struggle of minority groups to express their identities freely, and the opposition to the expanding despotism of the democratically elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. The abuse of the police force, as well as widespread media censoring and retaliation against journalists and social media users sharply exemplified the flaws of Turkish democracy in its failure to guarantee the pluralism of democracy and the respect for fundamental rights and freedoms (Yaman, 2015).
On the night between July 15th and 16th, 2016, a group part of the Turkish military attempted to carry out a coup to overthrow the parliament, the government, and the President of Turkey. During the night, assaults and violence took place across major Turkish cities, resulting in the killing of more than 250 people and the injury of more than 2,500 people (ECtHR, 2019). As news of the attempted coup spread on social media, thousands of ordinary citizens, with the support of loyal soldiers and police authorities, suppressed the coup within hours. The Turkish government linked the failed coup attempt to the Turkish preacher and businessman Fethullah Gülen, who has been living in voluntary exile in the U.S. since 1999 (BBC, 2016).
Kavala was arrested on October 18th, 2017 in Istanbul, on charges of attempting to overthrow the Erdogan government and the constitutional order through the use of force and violence. He was accused of taking a leading role both in the Gezi Park events of 2013 and the attempted coup of 2016 (ECtHR, 2019). On October 31st, 2017, assisted by his lawyers, Kavala was interrogated by police officers from the Istanbul Security Headquarters anti-terrorist division. On November 1st, 2017, the public prosecutor called for Kavala to be brought into preventive detention for attempting “to abolish, replace or prevent the implementation of, through force and violence, the constitutional order of the Republic of Turkey” (Penal Code of Turkey Art. 309) and for “attempting, by the use of force and violence, to abolish the government of the Republic of Turkey or to prevent it, in part or in full, from fulfilling its duties” (Penal Code of Turkey Art. 311). On November 8th, 2017, Kavala filed an objection against his pre-trial detention order. A few days later, the Istanbul 2nd Magistrate’s Court rejected his request on the grounds that the decision contested was following the procedure and the law (ECtHR, 2019).
The case was also brought in front of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), holding that multiple violations of the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention) occurred. In the Kavala v. Turkey case, the Strasbourg Court held that there had been a violation of the right to liberty and security enshrined in Article 5 (1), the right to a speedy decision on the lawfulness of detention outlined in Article 5 (4), and the limitation on use of restrictions on rights taken together with Article 5 (1) (ECtHR, 2019). The Court noted that Kavala’s pre-trial detention “had mainly been based not only on acts that could not be reasonably considered as behaviour criminalised under domestic law, but also on acts which were largely related to the exercise of rights guaranteed by Articles 10 and 11 of the Convention, and that those acts had been non-violent”. The Court also added that “in the absence of facts, information or evidence showing that Mr. Kavala had been involved in criminal activity, he could not reasonably be suspected of having attempted to overthrow the government by force or violence” (ECtHR, 2019).
In addition to the main allegation against Kavala, he and the other defendants were held responsible for damaging public properties during the mass protests, denting a place of worship or cemetery, unlawful possession of weapons, looting, and serious injuries. However, no evidence was presented to link the defendants to any of these alleged offences. In addition, the indictment was found to be incoherent and filled with unbridled conspiracy theories, defined by Kavala himself as “fantastical fiction” (Human Rights Watch, 2019). The Strasbourg Court confirmed that there is no reliable evidence of criminal activities, noting that Kavala was acting in the exercise of rights protected under the Convention, including freedoms of expression and assembly. The Court also denounced Turkey’s Constitutional Court for failing to deliver a rapid or efficient review of Kavala’s wrongful detention (Human Rights Watch, 2019).
Amnesty International Turkey strategy and research manager Andrew Gardner declared that “today’s judgement is not the first time the court has found that Turkey has jailed its critics, not because of offending behaviour, but in a crude attempt to try to silence them”. He continued by stating that “Osman Kavala’s release needs to be the first of many steps beginning to reverse the damage caused by the massive crackdown on civil society over the last several years and to restore respect for human rights in Turkey today” (Human Rights Watch, 2019).
Despite the ECtHR judgement having deemed that Turkey should take every measure to terminate Kavala’s pre-trial detention, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in December 2021 launched a formal infringement proceeding against Turkey after failing to release Kavala and the other defendants, which was against the judgement of the Strasbourg Court. At the Committee of Ministers’ meeting on February 2nd, 2022, the ECtHR was asked to determine whether Turkey has failed to observe Article 46 (1) of the Convention (Binding force and execution of judgments) (Amnesty International Italia, 2021). On the same day, the Committee of Ministers formally voted to open the infringement proceeding against Turkey after failing to comply with the Strasbourg Court’s 2019 judgement (Netherlands Helsinki Committee, 2022).
On Monday, April 25th, 2022, Osman Kavala and seven other co-defendants were convicted. These were Mücella Yapıcı, an architect; Can Atalay, a lawyer; Tayfun Kahraman, a city planner and academic; Çiğdem Mater, a filmmaker; Mine Özerden, a rights defender; Hakan Altınay, an educator; and Yiğit Ekmekçi, founder of a university and a businessman. The conviction was considered “a shocking miscarriage of justice” by Human Rights Watch. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said that “the conviction of Osman Kavala and the seven others in a sham trial where wild assertions and conspiracy theories stood in for anything resembling evidence is a gross violation of human rights and ample proof that Turkey’s courts operate under instructions from the Erdogan presidency” (Human Rights Watch, 2022). In conclusion, international partners should make sure that the unfair sentence of Kavala and the other respondent has tangible political consequences on the Turkish government. Notably, the European Union’s “positive agenda” in collaboration with Turkey has proved to be utterly incompatible with Turkey’s failure to release Kavala in conformity with the Strasbourg Court’s judgement and worsened by the convictions, draconian sentencing, and detention orders for Kavala and his co-defendants (Human Rights Watch, 2022).
Amnesty International Italia. (2021, December 3). Osman Kavala: il Consiglio d’Europa lancia la procedura d’infrazione contro la Turchia. Amnesty International Italia. Retrieved on 4 May 2022 from https://www.amnesty.it/osman-kavala-il-consiglio-deuropa-lancia-la-procedura-dinfrazione-contro-la-turchia/.
European Court of Human Rights. (2019, December 10). The Court finds a violation of Articles 5 and 18 of the Convention and calls for the immediate release of Mr Kavala, a businessman and human-rights defender who is detained in prison.
Human Rights Watch. (2019, December 10). Turkey: Free Osman Kavala. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved on 4 May 2022 from https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/12/10/turkey-free-osman-kavala.
Human Rights Watch. (2022, April 26). Turkey: Life Sentence for Rights Defender Osman Kavala. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved on 4 May 2022 from https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/04/26/turkey-life-sentence-rights-defender-osman-kavala.
Netherlands Helsinki Committee. (2022, February 3). Turkey: Vote for infringement process by Council of Europe for release of Osman Kavala. Netherlands Helsinki Committee. Retrieved on 4 May 2022 from https://www.nhc.nl/turkey-vote-for-infringement-process-by-council-of-europe-for-release-of-osman-kavala/#:~:text=On%202%20February%202022%2C%20the%20Council%20of%20Europe,Turkey%20should%20free%20human%20rights%20defender%20Osman%20Kavala.?msclkid=21aa6a2acb9a11ecbb40687432522ac5.
Yaman, A. (2015). The Gezi Park Protests: The impact of freedom of expression in Turkey. PEN International. Retrieved on 4 May 2022 from https://pen-international.org/app/uploads/PEN-Gezi-Report.pdf.