Will the Gezi trial serve as a wake-up call for the EU?
Events in Turkey, which is convulsing in its most profound crisis in more than five years, are such that any flicker of hope in justice that appears on the horizon quickly ends in harmful disappointment.
The last nail in the coffin of rule of law was the announcement by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regarding what many viewed as the “final farce” — the so-called Gezi Trial and the resultant carousel of acquittal and rearrest of businessman and civil society activist Osman Kavala.
Kavala faced an aggravated life-in-prison sentence on terrorism charges for attempting to ”overthrow” the Erdogan government by allegedly mobilising a rebellion in June 2013 against the development of a shopping mall in Gezi Park, one of Istanbul’s few green spaces.
At a court hearing February 18, he and eight others were acquitted in the case, to the joy of the Turkish opposition and international community. The case, which was beyond even the imagination of Kafka, was over and done.
However, a few hours later, the nightmare was back — a trademark pattern of Erdogan’s rule. Kavala was charged anew just as he was hoping to leave prison. He has been held behind bars since his arrest October 18, 2017. This time, Kavala was accused of masterminding the attempted coup on July 15, 2016.
Law experts and NGO observers said there was no doubt the order to keep Kavala in prison came directly from Erdogan himself. Erdogan’s announcement, which came the day after the chaotic yo-yo game in the case, was proof of that. The acquittal of Kavala, he said, was part of a conspiracy to topple his government.
“They hatched a scheme to have him acquitted,” he said.
By this time, even the highest placed observers in the international community had to face the fact that they had been thrown another nasty curveball by Turkey’s apparently under-pressure strongman.
Naively, many of them had believed that the acquittals showed a new “softer” Erdogan, pushed into a corner due to economic and foreign policy crises. Some human rights officials in the European Union, such as new Turkey rapporteur Sanchez Amor, even spoke about a “return to normality.”
All such commentary quickly found itself in the wastebasket after Kavala’s rearrest.
That many people in and outside Turkey expect an end to such injustice and cruel treatment of human beings is understandable but the reality requires clearer optics.
Almost all court cases against dissidents, journalists, academics, civil rights defenders, Kurdish elected mayors, political activists, et cetera — thousands of them in long detention — are nothing more than politicised sham trials. Whether they end up in sentencing or acquittal does not change the fact that they are political and have nothing to do with the rule of law but rather are an ugly power game choreographed by Erdogan.
The cruelty and suffering staged in today’s oppressed Turkey are major reasons to be severely pessimistic but not the only ones. The Kavala case showed, once more, how helpless and weary some human rights institutions in the West are and how indifferent and even cynical some EU politicians have become about developments in Turkey.
When I visited Brussels in February for a panel on the state of Turkish government’s human rights abuses, the rock bottom cases and sham trials, this perception was inescapable.
The key issue for the European Union and Turkey’s Western allies is the trap of pretending that if a single sham trial ends in an acquittal, then all will be back to “normal.” In fact, Kavala, a brave and honest man who hoped for a humane state in Turkey, is one of nearly 50,000 political prisoners in Turkey, a figure documented by the 2019 Human Rights Watch report.
No improvement in a single case will hide that normality in Turkey will only return through the adoption of a new democratic constitution, fundamental judicial reform and a general amnesty that will leave no single political prisoner behind bars. Until then, Erdogan will be able to play a yo-yo game with the rotten justice system.