22nd Jan 2022


Osman Kavala in a Turkish jail - taking injustice personally

  • Four years behind bars in the absence of a criminal conviction, facing charges without any evidential basis, Osman Kavala's release is long overdue (Photo: Council of Europe)
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At its London headquarters, Amnesty International has a large sign emblazoned in a hallway encouraging you to 'Take Injustice Personally'.

In Europe, there is a prominent victim of injustice whose case I take quite personally. It seems that Turkey's leaders do as well and to prove it, they and have gone to such absurd lengths to keep him behind bars.

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  • At its London headquarters, Amnesty International has a large sign emblazoned in a hallway encouraging you to 'Take Injustice Personally' (Photo: The Dots/Amnesty International)

That victim is philanthropist Osman Kavala, one of Turkey's most well-known human rights defenders, who has been unjustly imprisoned for more than four years.

I regularly met with Kavala not only in my office in Strasbourg, the seat of the Council of Europe, of which Turkey is a member state, but also during regular visits to Turkey.

As a prominent figure in Turkey's civil society and his obvious vast knowledge of its diversity and history, it was always enlightening to speak with him.

While Kavala's opinion on human rights developments was often sought out by people trying to understand Turkey, he was also a pillar of Turkish civil society, giving many non-governmental organisations his philanthropic support.

Kavala was also a founder of the Turkish School of Political Studies, which is a member of an association of 21 democracy academies affiliated with the Council of Europe. I happen to be this association's president.

I am often asked: why Kavala? Why has he been singled out with one baseless accusation after another?

It is for the authorities to answer this question. What we can speak about are the facts and they point at a determination to punish him by holding him behind bars for as long as possible, and thus sending a chilling message to the rest of society: we can keep him and you imprisoned for years even without a guilty verdict.

Since November 2017 Kavala has faced one fantastical accusation after another: organising and financing the Gezi protests – mass demonstrations in 2013 against an urban development project.

When a court acquitted him of that charge in 2020, he was immediately rearrested for allegedly being behind the 2016 failed coup attempt, a charge that was soon replaced by "military and political espionage" to keep him in prison.

Over the summer, in a sequence of events that would be unbelievable in a fiction, the three charges he faces were joined in one prosecution with 51 others including 35 football supporters whose acquittals five years ago in a case that everyone has forgotten, was also conveniently overturned earlier this year.

'Show me the man, I will find the crime'

The form of justice encapsulated in Kavala's prosecution is reminiscent of the famous line: 'show me the man, I will find the crime'. Indeed, Turkey's leaders have found their man and keep trying to find a crime to pin on him.

Only last week, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Turkey in a case involving 427 judges and prosecutors finding their right to liberty and security had been violated when they were detained in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt.

It is not only me who finds the charges against him absurd.

The European Court of Human Rights, whose rulings Turkey has accepted as binding, has issued a judgement calling for Kavala's immediate release, as it found his detention to pursue an "ulterior purpose" – to silence him. The committee of ministers – the body composed of foreign affairs ministers' deputies charged with enforcing judgments – has already called seven times for Kavala's release.

This week as they meet again, these same member states can show they mean business by ratcheting up the pressure on Turkey.

Stubbornly refusing, as Turkey has done, to honour its obligations and implement a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights could – and should - lead being subjected to infringement proceedings – that is, resending the judgment back to the European Court to assert refusal to comply with the binding judgment.

This has only been done once before in the history of the Court, in the case of Ilgar Mammadov vs. Azerbaijan. Then, these proceedings, along with other measures, ultimately led to Mammadov's release.

Four years behind bars in the absence of a criminal conviction, facing charges without any evidential basis, Kavala's release is long overdue.

Representatives of the other 46 Council of Europe member states should nudge Turkey to do the right thing by insisting that human rights are a common responsibility, that Turkey must abide by its obligations, and that Turkey cannot disregard the rules any longer. The friends of human rights in Turkey must vote for infringement proceedings, as abstaining in the vote this week means voting in favour of letting Turkey off the hook.

Let us watch where the conscience of Europe stands. Will they take Kavala's rights personally?

Author bio

Nil Muižnieks is Amnesty International's Europe director and served as the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights between 2012 and 2018.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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