An Istanbul court on Monday sentenced Turkish civil rights activist and philanthropist Osman Kavala to life in prison for “attempting to overthrow the government,” according to state-run news agency Anadolu, concluding a high-profile trial that has concerned Western nations and human rights groups.
Kavala was sentenced in connection with the 2013 anti-government protests in Turkey, which began over a plan to turn a small park in central Istanbul into a shopping mall in the summer.
The demonstrations quickly morphed into larger anti-government rallies across Turkey. The court also sentenced seven other defendants to 18-year prison sentences for aiding an attempt to overthrow the government. Among them was 71-year-old architect Mucella Yapici, Istanbul Municipality urban planner Tayfun Kahraman and documentary filmmaker Cigdem Mater.
Istanbul’s 13th Heavy Penal Court ordered that the activists, who were not arrested pretrial, to be immediately arrested, Anadolu reported.
Kavala, his lawyers, other defendants and their lawyers have repeatedly denied the accusations, saying prosecutors lack evidence to support the claims. They are also expected to appeal the verdict.
Kavala, 64, is among Turkey’s most high-profile detainees.
He was first arrested in 2017 on charges related to the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. The trial was closely watched by rights groups, who have accused the Turkish government of using the judicial system to crack down on dissenting voices.
Though Kavala was acquitted in 2020, that verdict was overturned and new charges were brought against him for his alleged involvement in the July 2016 attempted coup, which resulted in the death of at least 250 people and a subsequent crackdown that has seen over 110,000 people, including civil servants, teachers, activists and journalists detained.
Amnesty International called Monday’s ruling a “devastating blow” for human rights, saying that the court’s decision “defies all logic.”
“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,” Amnesty said in a statement.
Kavala’s arrest has strained Turkish government relations with the West. Ten ambassadors, including representatives from the United States, France and Germany, released a statement asking for his freedom and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared them “persona non grata.”
Germany’s foreign minister Annalena Baerbock called the judgment a “blatant contradiction” of the international obligations Turkey is committed to as a member of the Council of Europe, according to a statement posted by Germany’s Federal Embassy on Monday. She also called for the immediate release of Kavala.
In February, 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 on grounds that his rights had been violated.
In a statement on Monday, two leading European Parliament ministers following the decision said, “This regrettable decision by the Istanbul 13th Heavy Penal Court is in clear contempt to the rulings of the European Court on Human Rights and will surely bring about consequences in the infringement proceedings ongoing at the Council of Europe.”
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 in their statement.
“(This is a) very sad day not only for them but also for those who daily defend fundamental rights and the rule of law in Turkey and for all those who wish to see the country coming closer to the EU. This is obviously not the way to do it,” they said.
“There is little to none EU perspective for the current Turkey, which is sliding away from international consensus on a rule-based order while disrespecting its own international commitments,” they added.