Turkey's top court keeps philanthropist Kavala in jail, shunning EU release calls

Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled to keep philanthropist and businessman Osman Kavala in pre-trial detention, rejecting claims that his rights to freedom had been violated.

The Constitutional Court’s General Assembly made the decision on Tuesday, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported. The case is being watched closely by the European Union and human rights groups, who have called for his immediate release.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pledged a fresh start in relations with the EU during a meeting with Charles Michel, president of the European Council, two weeks ago. That raised hopes Kavala might be freed as part of democratic reforms Erdogan has promised.

"Sadly, the Turkish Constitutional Court has become a politicised institution, nothing to do with law nor justice," said Kati Piri, vice president of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs for the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament. 

The 63-year-old businessman and philanthropist, a leading civil rights advocate, has been in pre-trial detention since his apprehension at an Istanbul airport in October 2017. He faces life in prison for seeking to overthrow the constitutional order and a further 20 years if convicted of additional espionage charges.

The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers issued a resolution on Dec. 3 calling for Kavala’s release. His imprisonment took place in the absence of evidence to support a “reasonable suspicion he had committed an offence” as required by Article 5 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, it said.

Tuesday's ruling followed legislation passed by Turkey's parliament on Sunday that allows the interior minister to shut down any civil society group without the chance of appeal. The measure was contained within a law designed to prevent terrorism financing.

On Saturday, Erdoğan said 2021 would be the year of democratic and economic reforms in Turkey. Opposition politicians have questioned Erdoğan's pledges, pointing to growing authoritarianism in the country under his leadership.

"Serving political masters gets you further than worrying about law in Turkey," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, a lawyer and the director of Human Rights Watch in Turkey.

Turkey’s “continuous and growing distancing from European values and standards” has pushed the country’s relationship with the European Union “to a historical low point", the European Parliament said in a draft report last month. Ties have deteriorated to such an extent that they require both parties to profoundly reassess the current framework of relations, it said.

Ties between Turkey and the EU have also worsened markedly due to a dispute between Ankara and EU members Greece and Cyprus over hydrocarbon exploration rights in the Mediterranean. Turkey's membership talks with the bloc have been frozen after a wave of arrests of state employees, opposition politicians, teachers and academics following a failed military coup in 2016.

On Dec. 18, Istanbul’s 36th High Criminal Court rejected an appeal by Kavala and extended his pre-trial detention period. The court is due to hold a next hearing in the case on Feb. 5.

(This story was updated with comments from Human Rights Watch in the ninth paragraph.)