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Turkish Court Defies Europe, Leaves Philanthropist Behind Bars

FILE - A journalist stands in front of a poster featuring jailed philanthropist Osman Kavala, during a press conference given by his lawyers, in Istanbul, Turkey, Oct. 31, 2018.

An Istanbul court has defied the European Court of Human Rights, ruling in favor of the continued detention of prominent philanthropist Osman Kavala. In December, the European Court demanded the immediate release of Kavala, who is on trial for sedition.

Kavala and 15 other civil society activists are accused of supporting anti-government protests in 2013 against then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is now president.

The protest action came to be known as the Gezi movement, named after an Istanbul park where the unrest started. Prosecutors are calling for life imprisonment without parole.

The ECHR condemned the case, calling for an end to Kavala's more than two years in prison and describing it as "arbitrary" and "politically motivated."

The Istanbul court ruled Tuesday the ECHR decision was provisional because Ankara was appealing the verdict and that Kavala should remain in jail.

"The court's decision is flawed because the European Court ruling was clear in its call for Kavala's immediate release," said Emma Sinclair Webb, Turkey researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"We saw multiple signs of how unfair this trial is," said Webb, speaking after attending Tuesday's court hearing. "The lawyers for Kavala raised many objections to the way witness evidence is used in this case. The court turns a deaf ear to all objections. It's a shocking indication that once again, Turkey's judiciary seems to be under heavy pressure of the executive."

Tuesday's court hearing was marred by chaos, with Kavala's lawyers challenging the judge's decision to hear some witnesses without their presence, prompting the lawyers to walk out of the room.

Ankara strongly rejects the ECHR verdict, maintaining that the judiciary is independent. But observers note the case has strong political undertones.

Three months ahead of Kavala's prosecution, Erdogan accused him of "financing terrorists" and that Kavala was a representative for "that famous Jew [George Soros,] who tries to divide and tear up nations." Erdogan did not elaborate on the comments about George Soros, who is an international philanthropist.

Erdogan's allegations against Kavala resemble the prosecution case against the jailed activist.

Kavala is a pivotal figure in Turkey, using his wealth to help develop the country's fledgling civil society after a 1980 military coup.

"Osman Kavala is very prominent within the civil society in this country," said Sinan Gokcen, Turkey representative of Swedish-based Civil Rights Defenders. "He is not a man of antagonism; he is a man of preaching dialogue, a man of building bridges."

FILE - Lawyers for jailed philanthropist Osman Kavala hold a press conference in Istanbul, Turkey, Oct. 31, 2018.
FILE - Lawyers for jailed philanthropist Osman Kavala hold a press conference in Istanbul, Turkey, Oct. 31, 2018.

Gokcen works to support Turkish human rights defenders and says Kavala's prosecution has far-reaching repercussions for civic society.

"It means that they [the Turkish government] can detain any member of civil society in Turkey regardless of what this person is defending or advocating and can keep this person as long as they want despite any legal mechanism. We feel unprotected. In a way, we feel powerless to end such a situation. We feel powerless and intimidated," added Gokcen.

Turkey is in the grip of a legal crackdown following a 2016 failed coup blamed by the president on dissident military elements with links to Turkish-Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen. Gulen lives in self-imposed exile in the United States and is a staunch opponent of Erdogan.

Hundreds of journalists, human rights defenders and members of the wider Turkish civic society have been prosecuted and jailed. The government says it is defending democracy, but critics argue the crackdown is more about silencing critics.

Human Rights Watch Monday called on the United Nations to review Turkey's "human rights crisis and the dramatic erosion of its rule of law framework." On Tuesday, Turkey faced its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) before the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Ankara claims it remains committed to human rights and cites its plans to introduce a package of legal reforms. But critics cite the ongoing prosecutions as evidence of the government's real intentions.

"The huge number of journalists, politicians, and perceived government critics in prison and on trial flies in the face of the Turkish government's public statements about the state of human rights in the country," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

With the U.N. having few tools to sanction Turkey, the European Union is seen as offering the best hope by human rights advocates of applying pressure on Ankara.

Turkey's EU membership bid is already frozen, in part due to human rights concerns. But Ankara is seeking to extend a customs union, along with visa-free travel for its citizens with the EU.

"It's time all European countries should be speaking out very loud and clear on cases like this [Kavala]," said Sinclair-Webb.

But even high-profile cases like Kavala's have seen Brussels offer only muted criticism of Ankara. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to Istanbul Friday for talks with Erdogan saw little criticism of Turkey's human rights record. Instead, discussions focused on Ankara's recent deployment of soldiers to Libya and the upholding of an EU-Turkish agreement controlling migrants entering Europe.

"There are many issues to talk about with Turkey," said Sinclair Webb. "Syria, Libya, Turkey, hosting so many refugees from Syria, and this often takes priority over Turkey's domestic human rights crisis. This means there isn't sufficient clarity on cases like this. What we are seeing is Turkey defying Europe's human rights court."

Some analysts suggest Brussels could yet be lobbying behind the scenes for Kavala's release, tying Ankara's calls for extra financial assistance for refugees to gestures on human rights.