Hope turns to heartbreak as Turkish courts play cat and mouse in Gezi case

Turkish academic Ayşe Buğra was ashen-faced as she left the restaurant near the top security Silivri prison where she and group of friends and supporters had gathered to celebrate the release of her husband, businessman and civil society activist Osman Kavala, after he was acquitted of trying to topple the government.

But after more than two years in jail, police re-arrested Kavala the moment he walked out of prison on Tuesday.

Kavala was among the 16 defendants of a trial accused of organising and financing the 2013 Gezi protests, the biggest anti-government demonstrations Turkey has witnessed during the 18-year rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

Kavala was facing a life sentence with no prospect of early release for attempting to violently overthrow the government, but when the court found him innocent and he was released, police waiting outside the jail arrested him on charges of overthrowing the government during a coup attempt in 2016. 

More than 100 people, members of parliament, journalists, academics, lawyers, civil society activities had gathered at the restaurant on Tuesday to welcome Kavala who had been behind bars for 840 days.

Buğra looked stunned as she left the restaurant, with film producer Çiğdem Mater, one of eight other defendants in the Gezi trial who were acquitted by court, helping her to a car.

“Everybody collapsed, and then dispersed,” one of those present said. “I am sat at another restaurant, I am crying.”

Many were expecting the court to announce its verdict on Tuesday before the expiry of a 90-day deadline to implement a Dec. 10 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights ordering Kavala to be released. No one anticipated what happened - first elation and then crushing disappointment.

Critics say Turkey never had the best standards of human rights and respect for the rule of law, but since the 2016 failed coup it has witnessed a series of travesties of justice with suspects held in long periods of pre-trial detention that are akin to a sentence in themselves, even if they are eventually found not guilty and released. 

“When Osman was arrested, during the time until the indictment was released, I thought ‘the legal process is working, let’s pause and wait’. I embraced a very silent, patient and respectful attitude,” Buğra said in an interview with Duvar new site last week, before her husband’s acquittal and re-arrest. 

“I am trying not to get hopeful. I became hopeful a few times, but then, as everybody witnessed, I faced unbelievable things … A person finds herself shaken. Loses all her balance,” she said. 

Turkish human rights activists are struggling to maintain their belief in the legal process. There is support from rights groups outside the country, but they see no real pressure from Turkey’s supposed Western allies. A Twitter handle named “Is EU Concerned?” jokes about the way the bloc addresses human rights violations in Turkey and elsewhere, expressing “deep concern” whenever necessary. 

Kavala is not the first person in Turkey to be freed and immediately re-arrested. Author and journalist Ahmet Altan was convicted of aiding U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gülen, the former government ally it now accuses of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt. Altan was re-arrested in November, a week after a court ruled he should be released from prison during a retrial. 

Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), remains behind bars, despite several courts ordering his release, both Turkish courts and the European Court of Human Rights.

Taner Kılıç, the honorary chair of the Turkey branch of rights group Amnesty International, who faces up to 15 years in prison on terrorism-related charges, was re-arrested in 2018 when one court appealed the verdict of another court that had ordered his release a day before. 

Singer and author Atilla Taş, and journalist Murat Aksoy, who were charged with coup-related crimes, were immediately re-arrested after a court ruled they should be released in 2017. 

The re-arrest of Kavala, an internationally renowned human rights activist, should not have come as a surprise, said a friend of his. “But there are tens of thousands of others who are not talked about.”

Kurdish journalists are being detained almost on a daily basis. Many Kurdish prisoners are sent to prisons far away from their homes and relatives, like Demirtaş, who is from the southeastern province of Diyarbakır, but is jailed in the northwestern province of Edirne.

There are military cadets who are serving life sentences for simply obeying the orders of their commanders on the night of the coup, despite the witnesses saying they had not even touched their weapons. There are 743 children aged six and younger staying in prison with their mothers, according to 2019 figures. Meanwhile, a growing number of people flee Turkey.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.