Turkish court prolongs pre-trial detention for philanthropist Kavala

(The article has been updated with Turkish court ruling; reactions throughout)

A Turkish court rejected an appeal by philanthropist Osman Kavala on Friday and extended his pre-trial detention period, local media reported.

Announcing its interim judgement after the recess, Istanbul’s 36th High Criminal Court said Kavala’s next hearing will be held on Feb. 5, 2021. The session on Friday was his first hearing.

The 63-year-old businessman faces life in prison for seeking to overthrow the constitutional order and a further 20 years if convicted on additional espionage charges. Human rights groups say the charges against him are politically motivated.

Kavala was acquitted of similar allegations in February, having been accused of financing and organising the 2013 Gezi protests. However, he was immediately issued with a new indictment alleging his of involvement in the 2016 failed coup attempt.

Kavala told the court on Friday that the fresh indictment against him had “no basis in reality” and included “the most extreme examples of unfounded, non-substantiated, and illogical charges”.

A leading figure in Turkish civil society, Kavala has been held on pre-trial detention since being detained at an Istanbul airport in October 2017.

Last December, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled for Kavala’s immediate release, saying his right to liberty and security and his right to a speedy decision on the lawfulness of his detention had both been violated.

On Tuesday, Turkey’s constitutional court reviewed Kavala’s case for a second time without making a final decision, thereby prolonging his detention.

MEPs Nacho Sánchez Amor and Sergey Lagodnsky described Friday’s judgement as “yet another of many missed chances for Turkey’s judiciary to abide” by the ECHR ruling.

"Today’s court decision means, above all, the ruthless continuation of human suffering inflicted upon a man who has by now spent 1,144 days in prison, without any legal basis, as the European Court of Human Rights stated in its ruling,” they said in a joint statement. "Stop this mockery of the judicial process once and for all."

“Despicable Turkey decision to prolong Osman Kavala pre-trial detention – now in its 3rd year – on fantastical, baseless charges of coup-plotting for which zero evidence was presented,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for Arab World Now, a human rights nonprofit. “This is a political vendetta of Erdoğan through and through.”

The latest charges against Kavala are “a barely concealed attempt to circumvent a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that his detention was unlawful”, Amnesty International’s Europe Director, Nils Muižniek, said before the hearing.

In November, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan raised the prospect of judicial reforms, leading to speculation Kavala could be released under efforts to repair relations with the European Union and the United States ahead of the incoming Joe Biden presidency.

“As long as civil society, politicians, journalists are kept in unjust and illegal dungeons, there cannot be mention of reform and democracy in Turkey,” Utku Çakırözer, a deputy from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said on Twitter.

U.S. citizen Henri Barkey is being tried in absentia alongside Kavala, charges the U.S. State Department said were “without merit and appear to be politically motivated”.

Speaking to Ahval in October, Barkey said: “Everything (the Turkish authorities) say is conjecture, they have no proof for any of the accusations.” 

Senior members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have also implicitly called for Kavala’s release by criticising long periods of pre-trial detention.

Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül said last week that pre-trial detentions should be “applied in a measured and proportioned manner”.

The comments follow similar remarks made by AKP founding member, Bülent Arınç who said he was “amazed” Kavala remained behind bars.

But Erdoğan has since pushed back on the issue of Kavala and other prisoners, accusing Arınç of seeking to "set a fire of discord’’ in the country.