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Turkey sentences activist Osman Kavala to life amid criticism

Turkey sentences activist Osman Kavala to life amid criticism
A Turkish court sentenced Osman Kavala to life in prison on Monday. Photo courtesy of Amnesty International.

April 25 (UPI) -- A Turkish court sentenced Osman Kavala to life in prison Monday on charges, including attempt to overthrow the government, despite Western allies and human rights groups criticizing his imprisonment for over four years.

Along with Kavala, a prominent philanthropist, businessman and civil society activist, seven other defendants charged with aiding the attempt to overthrow the government were sentenced by a panel of three judges to 18 years in prison.

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Kavala was first arrested on criminal charges alleging he incited the 2013 protests sparked by a government plan to build a replica of Ottoman-style barracks in Istanbul's Gezi Park.

A Turkish court acquitted him in 2020 of those charges, ordering his release. But prosecutors prepared new charges, accusing him of spying, and remanded him into custody as part of a probe into the 2016 failed coup attempt to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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Kavala has been in prison since Oct. 18, 2017, according to a U.S. embassy statement on the four-year anniversary of his detention.

The U.S. embassy, along with embassies of other Western allies, called for his urgent release in the statement.

"The continuing delays in his trial, including by merging different cases and creating new ones after a previous acquittal, cast a shadow over respect for democracy, the rule of law and transparency in the Turkish judiciary system," the statement said.

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In response to the statement, Erdogan declared 10 ambassadors from Western countries not welcome in the country, including an ambassador from the United States, among others.

The embassy statement noted a European Court of Human Rights ruling in 2019 that Kavala's detention took place without sufficient evidence that he committed the offense, and demanded his release.

The European Court further found that his arrest and pre-trial detention were mainly to silence him and dissuade other human rights activists and denied him of his right to a "speedy" trial.

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In response to Turkey failing to implement the court's judgment and release Kavala, the Council of Europe, which is tasked with upholding human rights, launched rarely-conducted infringement proceedings against Turkey, indicating the serious concerns it held over Kavala's case.

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"This regrettable decision by the Istanbul 13th Heavy Penal Court is in clear contempt to the rulings of the European Court on Human Rights and will surely bring about consequences in the infringement proceedings ongoing at the Council of Europe," Nacho Sanchez Amor, European Parliament Standing rapporteur for Turkey, and Sergey Lagodinsky, the EU-Turkey Parliamentary Delegation chair, said in a statement.

The pair said Monday was "a very sad day" not only for Kavala and the other defendants sentenced but for those who defend fundamental rights and the rule of law in Turkey.

"This decision reconfirms the authoritarian character of the current system and it clearly shows the lack of willingness to make any kind of real reforms in the field of fundamental rights and rule of law," they said. "In this view, there is little to none EU perspective for the current Turkey, which is sliding away from international consensus on a rule-based order while disrespecting its own international commitments."

The human rights group Amnesty International released a statement on the sentencing of Kavala and his co-defendants on Monday, calling it a "devastating blow" for human rights.

"Today, we have witnessed a travesty of justice of spectacular proportions," Amnesty International's Europe Director Nils Muižnieks said in the statement. "This verdict deals a devastating blow not only to Osman Kavala, his co-defendants and their families, but to everyone who believes in justice and human rights activism in Turkey and beyond."

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"The court's decision defies all logic," the statement continued. "The prosecuting authorities have failed to provide any evidence that substantiates the baseless charges of attempting to overthrow the government. This unjust verdict shows that the Gezi trial was only an attempt to silence independent voices."

Muižnieks called for the immediate release of Kavala and his co-defendants as they appeal the verdicts.

The sentencing date "comes three months after the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers took the rare decision to begin the formal process of infringement against Turkey over its failure to release Osman Kavala," Muižnieks had noted in a previous statement.

Ned Price, spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said the United States was "deeply troubled and disappointed" with the Turkish court's decision, and called on Ankara to release him.

"We urge the government to cease politically motivated prosecutions and to respect the rights and freedoms of all Turkish citizens," he said in a statement.

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