The Council of Europe on October 9 awarded its top human rights prize to jailed Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala, the civil society figure whom President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refuses to back for release despite rulings from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that he should be freed.
The decision, amounting to a stinging rebuke to the Turkish strongman, prompted an angry response from Ankara.
Sixty-six-year-old Kavala’s wife Ayse Bugra Kavala—who collected the 2023 Vaclav Havel Prize from Tiny Kox, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE)—was quoted by AFP as saying: "I'm very sad he cannot be with us to receive this prize, this meaningful prize."
In a letter written from prison, read out by his wife, Kavala said he was honoured by the decision to give him the award, and dedicated the prize to his "fellow citizens unlawfully kept in prison".
Kavala added that the award reminded him of the words of the late Czech president and human rights champion Vaclav Havel, writing to his wife Olga from prison in 1980 during Soviet times: “The most important thing of all is not to lose hope. This does not mean closing one’s eyes to the horrors of the world. In fact, only those who have not lost faith and hope can see the horrors of the world with genuine clarity.”
The Turkish foreign ministry condemned the "unacceptable" award in a statement.
"Giving the award to a person who has a final conviction is an extension of attempts to politicise the law," it said. The Council of Europe—Europe’s top human rights body—was pursuing a "political agenda", the ministry added.
Politicising the law is exactly what Erdogan is accused of doing by critics, though the strongman claims Turkey’s judiciary remains independent.
In a 2019 ruling, the ECtHR found Kavala’s detention violated his rights and pursued an ulterior purpose, “namely to reduce him to silence as a human rights defender”, and could dissuade other human rights defenders. In 2022, the court’s Grand Chamber confirmed that Turkey has failed to fulfil its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Kavala was one of tens of thousands of Turks who were either imprisoned or fired from their jobs in purges that followed the July 2016 attempted coup against Erdogan.
He has faced, and denied, alternating charges ranging from espionage and financing the 2013 “Gezi” protests to participating in the attempted putsch.
Kavala is sometimes described, including by Erdogan, as the “Turkish George Soros”. The Jewish multi-billionaire philanthropist Soros, whose Open Society Foundations support liberal, democratic causes, is a bogeyman for the hard right around the world, accused of being an evil mastermind behind a global conspiracy.
The Council of Europe said the moves against Kavala were aimed at gagging critics and stifling dissent. It has launched infringement proceedings against Turkey over its treatment of Kavala. That could bring about the expulsion of Ankara from the organisation.
Turkey's supreme court last month upheld Kavala's conviction and life imprisonment on the charge of attempting to overthrow Erdogan's administration during the 2013 protests. Kavala is not eligible for parole or an appeal.
Kavala, born in France and an economics graduate of the University of Manchester in Britain, was acquitted in February 2020 of involvement in the 2013 protests and 2016 coup. But he was immediately rearrested and charged with espionage. New charges that included ones he had already been cleared of were then brought.
Turkey's opposition chief Kemal Kilicdaroglu paid his first visit to Kavala on October 6. "No one should be judged for their thoughts," Turkish media quoted him as saying outside Kavala's jail.
Last month, the European Union's enlargement commissioner told candidate nation Turkey to address issues of democracy and the rule of law if it wanted to push forward its decades-old application to join the bloc.
During the summer, Erdogan indicated that Turkey would like to step up efforts to strengthen relations with the EU, with an eye on progressing the membership bid. But lately, he has once more soured on Brussels, saying that Ankara no longer expects anything from the bloc, having waited so many years to become an EU member.
“We have kept all the promises we have made to the EU, but they have kept almost none of theirs,” the Turkish leader stated in a speech to parliament last week.
Turkey has complained in recent months that an increasing number of its citizens are having their Schengen visa applications rejected, but the EU has denied creating any additional obstacles for Turks. In his speech, Erdogan said the visa denials were “covert sanctions against us” by Brussels.
The European Parliament last month approved a report censuring Turkey for curtailing “fundamental freedoms, human rights and civil liberties, as well as by its actions going against international law and good neighbourly relations.”
Erdogan reacted by warning that Turkey may decide to “part ways with the EU”.