European rights court calls for Turkish philanthropist Kavala’s release

(Releads with ECHR’s decision, updates throughout)

The European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday ruled that Turkey had violated jailed philanthropist and businessman Osman Kavala’s rights and called for his immediate release.

Kavala has been held in solitary confinement since November 2017, facing charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government. Prosecutors accused him of masterminding the Gezi Park protests of 2013, the biggest anti-government demonstrations since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist party came to power in 2002.

Kavala appealed to the European Court in June 2018, saying his pre-trial detention violated his right to life and liberty, and was politically motivated, pertaining to Articles 5 and 18 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The court ruled unanimously that Turkey had infringed on Kavala’s right to liberty and security and right to a speedy decision on the lawfulness of detention, covered in Article 5, and six to one that Turkey had breached Article 18, which sets limitations on a state’s use of measures restricting a person’s rights.

While the court’s rulings are in theory binding on Turkey, Turkish authorities have in the past refused to implement them.

Kavala should not be on trial in the first place, but if a trial could not be avoided, the philanthropist should not have awaited trial in jail, Amnesty International Turkey’s Campaigns and Communication Director Tarık Beyhan said.

The Gezi Park protests started as a small peaceful gathering of environmental activists protesting the demolition of one of the last green spaces in Istanbul’s bustling Beyoğlu district for the construction of an Ottoman-style shopping centre.

Civic rights group Taksim Solidarity, which had its roots in an earlier protest against the demolition of an historic cinema in Beyoğlu, became the de facto public face of the Gezi Park protests. Members of Taksim Solidarity are also facing trial in the same case as Kavala, but he remains the only defendant in still held pre-trial detention.

The Turkish authorities say Kavala has been held pending trial on account of a “strong suspicion” that he was guilty of attempting to overthrow the government and the constitutional order.

But the ECHR ruling said “the authorities were unable to demonstrate that the applicant’s initial and continued pre-trial detention had been justified by reasonable suspicions based on an objective assessment of the acts attributed to him”.

It also said the protests in question were non-violent acts that were not criminalised under domestic law and were acts guaranteed under articles 10 and 11 of the Convention.

“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,” the ruling said.

The Gezi trial constitutes a direct attack on civil society organisations, with 16 peaceful activists facing charges of attempting to violently overthrow the government, the director for independent human rights organisation Truth Justice Memory Centre (Hafıza Merkezi) Murat Çelikkan told Voice of America.

“There is no evidence, no violence used and no illegal organisation to speak of, thus there is no expectation of justice in Turkey,” Çelikkan said.

Rights groups have criticised Turkey for holding suspects for extended periods of pre-trial detention, especially in the wake of a failed coup attempt in July 2016.

The ambiguity regarding what actions would trigger what consequences works to paralyse and intimidate the public, and Kavala being chosen to demonstrate the policy sends a message to diverse sections of society, Çelikkan said.

The ECHR’s ruling said Kavala’s detention “pursued an ulterior purpose, contrary to Article 18, namely that of reducing Mr Kavala, and with him all human-rights defenders, to silence.”

The court in November 2019 ruled that the extended pre-trial detention of Selahattin Demirtaş, a Kurdish politician and former co-chair of the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), had violated his rights. Demirtaş has been in prison, sharing a cell with another former lawmaker from his party, since November 2016 despite the ECHR ruling for his immediate release.