A Turkish Court on Monday sentenced prominent Turkish civil rights activist and philanthropist Osman Kavala to life in prison without parole, finding him guilty of attempting to overthrow the government in connection with the 2013 mass anti-government protests.
The court in Istanbul also sentenced seven other defendants to 18 years in prison each and ordered that the activists, who were not in custody, be immediately arrested.
The verdict comes as Europe’s top human rights body, the Council of Europe, launched infringement procedures against Turkey for refusing to abide by a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, which called for Kavala’s release in 2019 on grounds that his rights had been violated.
Kavala, 64, has been jailed in Silivri prison, on the outskirts of Istanbul, since he was detained Oct. 18, 2017, accused of financing the protests. He and other defendants denied all the accusations against them.
Human rights groups say Kavala was prosecuted with flimsy evidence. His case was being closely watched as a test for Turkey's adherence to the rule of law.
Supporters of Kavala and the seven other defendants immediately protested the verdict Monday, shouting slogans in support of the 2013 mass demonstrations.
Asked for his final words in court on Monday, Kavala said: "The aggravated life sentence demanded against me is an assassination that cannot be explained through legal reasons," according to the Media and Law Studies Association group which has been monitoring the trial.
In his defense statements Friday, Kavala rejected the accusations once again, insisting that he had merely taken pastries and face masks from a pharmacy to the protesters. He said allegations that he directed the protests are "not plausible."
"The fact that I spent 4.5 years of my life in prison is an irreparable loss for me. My only consolation is the possibility that my experience will contribute to a better understanding of the grave problems of the judiciary," Kavala told the court by videoconference from Silivri.
Kavala is the founder of a nonprofit organization, Anadolu Kultur, which focuses on cultural and artistic projects promoting peace and dialogue.
The 2013 protests started as opposition to a planned shopping mall on the site of a small park in central Istanbul but soon grew into a nationwide protest against Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time.
Kavala was initially acquitted in February 2020 of charges that connected him with the 2013 Gezi Park protests. As supporters awaited his release, Kavala was rearrested on new charges linking him to Turkey's 2016 coup attempt. The acquittal was later overturned and the case was merged with that relating to the coup attempt, which the Turkish government blames on the network of US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. Gulen denies any links to the attempted coup.
In October, Kavala’s continued detention sparked a diplomatic crisis between Turkey and 10 Western countries, including the United States, France and Germany, after they called for his release on the fourth anniversary of his imprisonment.
Erdogan, now Turkey's president, has accused Kavala, of being the "Turkish branch" of billionaire US philanthropist George Soros, whom the Turkish leader alleges has been behind insurrections in many countries. He has threatened to expel Western envoys for meddling in Turkey’s internal affairs.
The European Court of Human Rights’ 2019 decision said Kavala’s imprisonment aimed to silence him and other human rights defenders and wasn’t supported by evidence of an offense.
The lengthy infringement process by the Council of Europe, a 47-member bloc that upholds human rights, could lead to the suspension of Turkey’s voting rights or membership in the organization.
Erdogan has dismissed the infringement process, saying Turkey would not "recognize those who do not recognize our courts." Turkey argues that Kavala’s ongoing detention is linked to the 2016 attempted coup and not the previous charges that were reviewed by the European court.