Turkey: Free Osman Kavala

European Court calls for civic leader’s immediate release

The European Court of Human Rights ruled on December 10, 2019 that Osman Kavala, a civic leader, has been arbitrarily detained in Turkey since November 2017. The court said that his detention has been carried out and prolonged in bad faith for unlawful purposes, in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, and that he should be immediately released.

In a joint statement today, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said that the Turkish authorities should carry out the European Court ruling and release Osman Kavala immediately. The court found that Kavala’s detention “pursued an ulterior purpose…namely that of reducing [him] to silence,” ruling that the charges he faced and the detention “were likely to have a dissuasive effect on the work of human-rights defenders.” The court found violations of Article 5/1(c), which sets out lawful grounds of detention, 5/4 which guarantees all detainees a right to a speedy review of the legality of their detention, and 18, which prohibits limitations on the rights of the European Convention (in this case liberty) for ulterior motives. In calling for Kavala’s immediate release, the court stressed that “any continuation of the applicant’s pre-trial detention in the present case will entail a prolongation of the violation of Article 5/1 and of Article 18.”

Today’s judgment is not the first time the court has found that Turkey has jailed its critics, not because of offending behavior, but in a crude attempt to try to silence them

Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International's Turkey Strategy and Research Manager

“The European Court of Human Rights’ ruling today should lead to an end to Turkey’s indefensible persecution of Osman Kavala,” said Aisling Reidy, senior legal adviser at Human Rights Watch. “The Turkish authorities should immediately release Kavala and stop their wider crackdown on rights defenders”

Kavala was first detained by police on October 18, 2017 at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport as he was returning from a visit with representatives of the Goethe Institute to Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey, where he supported a project for Syrian refugees. Kavala is the founder of the nongovernmental group Anadolu Kültür A.Ş., which promotes human rights through the arts, and is a leading figure in Turkey’s civil society.

A court ordered him to be held in pretrial detention on November 1, 2017, allegedly on suspicion that he organized the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in 2013 and was involved the July 15, 2016 attempted military coup. In March 2019, he and 15 others were indicted on charges of “attempting to overthrow the government or partially or wholly preventing its functions” (article 312 of Turkey’s criminal code) for their alleged role in the Gezi protests. Their trial began on June 24. 

It revolves around a 657-page indictment that purports to show the 16 defendants, who include people working in the arts, education, and peaceful civic activism, conspired to organize and finance the 2013 Gezi Park protests, which spread to cities across Turkey. All face life in prison without parole if found guilty.

In addition to the main charge against them, the prosecutor holds the defendants responsible for crimes allegedly committed by protesters across Turkey during the mass protests. The defendants face additional charges of damaging public property, damaging a place of worship or cemetery, unlawful possession of dangerous substances, unlawful possession of weapons, looting, and serious injury. No evidence is presented to connect the defendants to any of these alleged crimes.

In reality the indictment is largely incoherent, packed with wild conspiracy theories, which Kavala himself called a “fantastical fiction.” In its judgment the court confirmed that it contains no credible evidence of criminal activity, noting that instead it listed many completely lawful acts related to the exercise of rights protected under the Convention, including freedoms of expression and assembly. The court also criticized Turkey’s Constitutional Court for failing to provide a speedy or effectively review of his unlawful detention. 

“Today’s judgment is not the first time the court has found that Turkey has jailed its critics, not because of offending behavior, but in a crude attempt to try to silence them,” said Andrew Gardner, Turkey strategy and research manager at Amnesty International. “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.”

Kavala’s detention is only one example of the harsh crackdown by the Turkish government on its critics. Over the last three years, the government has closed down more than 1,500 associations and foundations, most of them during a state of emergency that allowed the government to rule by emergency decree, without effective parliamentary or judicial oversight. Peaceful protest has been suppressed.

Despite the end of emergency rule, critics of the government risk criminal charges and lengthy pretrial imprisonment. Over 100 journalists and media workers remain in prison. Since the July 2016 coup attempt, almost 130,000 public sector workers have been arbitrarily dismissed from their jobs for alleged links to terrorist organizations.

The Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, Dunja Mijatović, submitted a third-party intervention, or amicus brief, in Kavala’s case before the European Court of Human Rights. She did so based on her visits to Turkey and her and her predecessors’ continuous monitoring of the country, which she said confirmed increasing pressure on civil society and human rights defenders in Turkey. She also drew attention to longstanding concerns about the use of criminal proceedings and, in particular, of detention to punish statements and acts that do not incite violence or hatred and are protected by international human rights standards. The commissioner concluded that such arrests and detentions form part “of a broader pattern of escalating reprisals in Turkey against civil society activists and human rights defenders for their legitimate work.”

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been pressing for Kavala’s immediate and unconditional release since the start of his arbitrary detention. Turkey should end its crackdown on civil society and release imprisoned journalists, human rights defenders, and other civil society members against whom the authorities have not provided evidence of internationally recognizable crimes.

For more information or to arrange an interview contact [email protected] or Stefan Simanowitz [email protected] +44 20 7413 5566