Council of Europe to vote on sanctions against Turkey over Osman Kavala case

The Council of Europe (CoE) will vote this week whether to launch infringement proceedings against Turkey over the country's insistence to keep philanthropist Osman Kavala behind bars despite the ECHR's binding decision. Turkey's membership or voting rights at the CoE could be suspended at the end of the proceedings.

Osman Kavala has been behind bars since 2017.

Duvar English

The Council of Europe’s (CoE) Committee of Ministers is holding its quarterly meeting from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 to oversee the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)'s decisions.

Among the cases that will reviewed during the meeting is that of philantrophist Osman Kavala, who remains in prison in Turkey after four years without conviction in a case.

An Istanbul court on Nov. 26 once again ruled to keep Kavala behind bars while his trial continues.

In its meeting documents, the Committee of Ministers has referred to Kavala's case as “unjustified and extended detention of the applicant without reasonable suspicion and with the ulterior purpose of reducing him to silence.”

The Committee of Ministers had given its final warning to Turkey about the Kavala case in September, saying that it would launch infringement proceedings against the country if the philanthropist is not released by the end of November.

It has repeatedly called on Turkey to release Kavala in line with the ECHR's ruling which said in 2019 that the philanthropist's detention was political. Turkey has however refused to abide by the court's decision.

If two-thirds of the Committee of Ministers approve, Turkey will be penalized for its insistence not to release Kavala. The country's membership or voting rights at the CoE could be even suspended at the end of the proceedings.

Kavala was jailed on Nov. 1, 2017, on charges of helping to organize the 2013 Gezi protests in Istanbul. Turkish courts ruled to acquit him and his co-defendants of these charges in February 2020, but he was immediately re-arrested and detained on charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” and “espionage” related to the coup attempt of July 2016. Kavala, along with human rights organizations around the world, has unequivocally condemned these charges, calling them blatantly political.

Last month, a group of 10 ambassadors to Turkey, including those from the US, Canada, Germany, and France, issued a statement calling for Kavala’s release. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the statement, threatening to declare the ambassadors “persona non grata,” effectively expelling them from the country. In the end, the ambassadors relented, declaring that they would abide by the non-interference article (Article 41) of the Vienna convention. President Erdogan considered this a victory. 

All told, Kavala has been held in pre-trial detention for 1,473 days without conviction. 

Kavala says espionage charges 'new threat' for Turkish NGOs

Meanwhile, speaking to Deutsche Welle Turkish, Kavala condemned the “fictionalized” charges levied against him and said that their acceptance by the Turkish judicial system represents a "new threat" for Turkish NGOs.

Speaking to DW Turkish before the Nov. 26 hearing, which Kavala did not attend due to the fact that he now sees the legal proceeding as a show trial orchestrated by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the philanthropist said that if the ECHR and the CoE do not take action against Turkey, the “weakness” of the organizations will be exposed. 

“Two years have passed since the ECHR's decision that political influence played a role in my detention and that I should be released immediately,” Kavala said. “Despite this decision, the continuation of my detention by various means has not only further violated my rights, but has also weakened the ability of the ECHR to protect the freedoms of the citizens of member states exercising the individual application mechanism.”

Kavala said that his arrest and the unjust legal mechanisms used against him are a warning to civil society by the Turkish government - charges can be “fictionalized” to criminalize dissent.

“The entire arrest process – not just the accusation of espionage – can be characterized as a warning to civil society activists,” Kavala said. “The striking thing about the espionage charge brought against me and used to continue my detention after the ECHR decision is that it was constructed without actually being bound by the definition of espionage in the law.”

Without being bound by the law, then, he said, the state is not required to present sufficient evidence in his case.

“The obligation to present appropriate evidence for the crime of espionage as defined by the law is eliminated,” he said. 

He compared the trial to “Nazi-era practices.” He said that his organization - Anadolu Culture - was simply carrying out cultural research into the experience of Kurdish and Armenian citizens with the support of European Foundations. The fact that this was criminalized as “espionage,” and that courts accepted the indictment, he said, “shows that a new threat has emerged for NGOs.”

When asked whether he thinks the ECHR should initiate infringement proceedings against Turkey, which could take away the country’s veto power and eventually its membership in the Council of Europe, Kavala said yes. 

“I think that the Council of Europe's warning to initiate the infringement procedure is also necessary in order to maintain the integrity and effective functioning of the individual application mechanism,” he said.

Despite his ongoing detention, Kavala said that he is in good health. The real toll of his time in prison, however, he said, will become evident when he is released. 

“If there is any damage, I think it will become understood when I start living my normal life,” he said.