The verdict came as a surprise—a Turkish court citing insufficient evidence acquitted prominent businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala and eight co-defendants on charges of seeking to overthrow the Erdogan administration with 2013 protests—but the joy was short-lived—Istanbul’s chief prosecutor ordered the continued re-arrest and detention of Kavala on separate charges relating to his supposed involvement in the failed July 2016 coup.
The court on the outskirts of Istanbul heard that Kavala was accused of instigating the nationwide “Gezi” demonstrations seven years ago against the government's plans to erect an Ottoman-style shopping centre in Gezi park, a rare green space in Istanbul. Paris-born Kavala, who chairs charitable foundation Anadolu Kultur, was held for 840 days at the maximum-security Silivri prison on the outskirts of Istanbul, but many Turkey watchers have always regarded the charges against him as contrived and flimsy. There were loud cheers from family, friends and international observers present at the hearing when the verdicts were given.
Decrying the re-arrest, Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch told AFP: “This is a vindictive and lawless move, further demonstrating that Turkey’s justice system is under tight political control.”
“This decision smacks of deliberate and calculated cruelty,” Amnesty International’s Turkey campaigner Milena Buyum responded. “It is time for Turkey to end the relentless crackdown on dissenting voices.”
Assuming the veracity of the widely held theory that the court verdict had little to do with justice but was a result of undercurrents running through Turkey’s politics, pundits quickly tried to isolate the reason why Kavala had been cleared. Some focused on a struggle within the judiciary between anti-Western forces who see figures like Kavala who wish to strengthen Turkish civil society as a threat and others who want the country to move in the contrary direction.
‘Nothing to do with the rule of law’
“What is clear,” said a Western diplomat speaking to Al-Monitor on condition that he not be identified by name, “is that none of this has to do with the rule of law”.
“Were there actual judicial independence, the case against the accused would have never been brought, the accused would have never suffered lengthy pre-trial detention and the case would have been thrown out after the European Court decision [in December to call for his release],” said Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor at St Lawrence University and non-resident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “I think the pattern remains: Trumped up political charges against perceived political enemies, Kafkaesque prosecutions and pretrial detention as a means of punishment,” he added.
Another theory doing the rounds was that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has previously described Kavala as the "Red Soros of Turkey", may have come to the conclusion that it is in his interests to give Kavala his freedom. However, there is also the case of prominent author Ahmet Altan to consider. Altan is also still in jail on highly dubious coup-related charges, even though he was freed in November—he was jailed again a week later.
“Developments in [the] Syria [stand-off with Damascus and Moscow] appear to be forcing Erdogan’s hand,” human rights lawyer Erdal Dogan told Al-Monitor. The Turkish leader “has few friends left so he is reaching out to he West again to hedge his bets”, he added.
‘Fixation on perceived enemies’
Ankara was widely condemned for ignoring the European court’s opinion.
Erdogan opponents have always claimed that it was the president’s fixation on the idea that Kavala and other perceived enemies were conspiring with Western powers to get rid of him that led to him being thrown in jail.
On February 19, a verdict is expected in the case of 11 human rights activists in Turkey, including former leading members of Amnesty International's branch in the country. The group was arrested in 2017 on terrorism charges, which the human rights organisation has dismissed as "absurd". The defendants could face up to 15 years in prison each if found guilty.