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Europe’s top court reprimands Turkey for jailing philanthropist 

Today’s decision by Europe's top rights court on Osman Kavala, who has kept behind bars for four and a half years in pre-detention and sentenced to life, inches Turkey closer to suspension of its voting rights or even membership in the Council of Europe. 
This photo shows the inside of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, eastern France, on Feb. 7, 2019.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled against Turkey in the case of the detention of philanthropist and rights activist Osman Kavala, thus giving the nod to the Council of  Europe (CoE) to continue with a rarely initiated disciplinary process against Ankara. 

The top European court said the philanthropist was held in pre-trial detention for more than four years despite three decisions ordering his release on bail and one acquittal judgment. 

Turkey did not act “in good faith” or in a manner compatible with the "conclusions and spirit" of the Kavala judgment of the Strasbourg-based court’s 2019 decision, the panel of judges concluded. Mere minutes after the ruling, CoE leaders said that the court had agreed that Turkey had failed to fulfill its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, an international convention to protect human rights in Europe that all members should abide by. “We welcome today’s judgment which provides a definitive answer on this point. We renew our call for the immediate release of Kavala,” the statement said. 

Kavala’s case — a cobweb of accusations, flimsy evidence and unrelated charges such as political espionage or the financing of different and often conflicting terrorist groups — has become a litmus test for Turkey’s human rights, the rule of law and independence of the judiciary. It also strained Ankara’s diplomatic ties, mainly when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was on the verge of ousting 10 Western ambassadors for penning a letter calling for the release of Kavala, the founder of the award-winning cultural platform Anadolu Kultur.

The ECHR Grand Chamber’s ruling, made in an open session, follows a Turkish court verdict in April to imprison the 64-year-old philanthropist for life without the possibility of parole for attempting to overthrow the government by supporting the 2013 Gezi Park protests. He was acquitted of espionage. 

The Turkish court’s verdict was rebuked in Washington, Paris, Berlin and Brussels as a sign that Turkey was moving further away from the rule of law and international human rights standards. International human rights groups called the sentence a “show trial” and “a travesty of justice of spectacular proportions.”  

The ECHR decision today, agreed to by all in the 17-member panel except Turkish judge Saadet Yuksel, waves aside Turkey’s claims that Ankara abided by the court’s 2019 ruling when the court released Kavala in February 2020 but detained him on the same day on new charges, including espionage. 

The Strasbourg-based court brushed aside Turkey’s argument. “The espionage suspicions had been based on facts that were similar, or even identical, to those that the court had already examined in the Kavala judgment. The court further observed that the suspicion of espionage had also been based on the activities carried out by Mr. Kavala in the context of his NGOs,” it said, ordering Turkey to pay Kavala 7,500 euros ($7,600) in compensation. 

Today’s decision by the ECHR  brings Turkey closer to the suspension of its voting rights or even membership in the CoE, a Pan-European bloc Turkey has been a member of for more than 70 years.  “We do not know which sanctions the CoE would impose on Turkey or on which order because there is no precedent,” Ambassador Riza Turmen, a former judge in the ECHR, said. “But we know what the last step would be, the suspension of membership, though I hope it will not come to that.”  

The judgment of the Grand Chamber of the European Court takes effect immediately. It is legally binding on Turkey, including the court of appeal and the Court of Cassation handling Kavala’s appeal to the verdict given by the court in Istanbul. The Committee of Ministers of the CoE will supervise the implementation of the judgment. 

After the ruling of the ECHR, the Committee of Ministers of the CoE will take up the case to discuss sanctions. They had only done so once before, when Azerbaijan unlawfully detained lgar Mammadov, an Azerbaijani politician and blogger, in 2017. 

The Turkish Foreign Ministry immediately condemned the decision, saying it “called into question the credibility of the European human rights system.”  

“We expect from the CoE Committee of Ministers [to] set aside its previous biased and selective approach, acts in common sense and in avoiding certain circles’ efforts to politicize the matter,” the statement said. 

But the Committee of Ministers looks unlikely to step back. “We urge Turkey to take all necessary steps to implement the judgment. This matter will remain under the supervision of the Committee of Ministers until the judgment is fully implemented,” the CoE said. 

Amnesty International said the ruling laid bare the failure of the Turkish government to abide by a legally binding obligation. “This ruling shames Turkey’s authorities. Kavala’s case is emblematic of the clampdown on civil society and the rollback in human rights protections that affects everyone in Turkey,” Julia Hall, deputy director for research at Amnesty International’s Europe office, said. She urged European states to keep up the pressure on Turkey to release Kavala. 

Despite the international criticism, Erdogan has so far remained unmoved and looks unlikely to do so. Two days after the Turkish court’s ruling, he argued that now that there was a court verdict, the CoE had to drop its claims that Turkey was holding Kavala behind bars without a conviction. Speaking to NGO members in Istanbul two days after the Kavala ruling, Erdogan insisted that Kavala was the coordinator behind the scenes of the Gezi Park protests that shook his government. “Our judiciary made its final decision on him. Some circles are seriously disturbed by this decision … but they have to respect the decision of our courts,” Erdogan said.   

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