(Notes on a Turkish injustice:
Osman Kavala is a mild-mannered 62-year-old Turkish businessman and philanthropist. His charitable giving has mainly focused on the establishment of cultural programs in different regions of Turkey and on the defense of human rights for the country’s minorities, including Kurds and Armenians.
He was arrested at the Istanbul airport on October 18, 2017 as he was returning from the border city, Gaziantep, where he had gone to look into programs he might support that would assist the millions of Syrian refugees who have flooded into Turkey since the war in their homeland began in 2011. Osman Kavala has been held in prison ever since.
For a long period, he was held without charges. When his prolonged detention became an issue before the European Court of Human Rights, the Turkish government charged Mr. Kavala and 15 other civil society leaders with crimes related to the Gezi Park protests of 2013, four years before his arrest. This had been an environmental protest to try to preserve a small park in the center of Istanbul where the government decided to build a shopping center. Years after they took place, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan labeled the protests as an attempted Coup d’Etat and asked for life sentences against all the defendants. A few were out of the country when these charges were made. Of those in the country, only one person in addition to Osman Kavala was detained: a representative of a Dutch foundation that supports early childhood education programs worldwide.
Eventually, on December 10, 2019 – celebrated as the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the European Court of Human Rights ordered the release of Mr. Kavala because of the absence of evidence to support the charges against him. As Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe, it is obliged to carry out the Court’s orders. It did not do so. Legal proceedings against Mr. Kavala and the other 15 defendants went forward in a Turkish court.
Those proceedings ended on February 18 with the Turkish court’s acquittal of all the defendants in Turkey. Osman Kavala was to walk free, or so it seemed for a few hours. Instead, however, he was rearrested and charged with participation in the July 2016 military coup. Accordingly, he remains in prison.
If anything, the new charges are even more preposterous than those relating to the Gezi Park protests. To anyone who knows Osman Kavala, the suggestion that he would have anything to do with a military conspiracy that apparently involved supporters of a religious cult is laughable.
The fact that President Erdogan has seemed determined to hold Osman Kavala in prison in defiance of an order of the European Court of Human Rights and despite his acquittal by a Turkish court suggests that Erdogan has a personal grudge against Mr. Kavala. The basis for such a grudge is a mystery.
The nomination of Osman Kavala to receive a prize named for Vaclav Havel is fitting. He exemplifies the qualities that Havel embodied: dedication to principles; concern for the downtrodden; and personal decency and modesty.
Also, Havel was noted for his absurdist plays, satires which dealt with bureaucratic routines and their dehumanizing effects. and the treatment of Osman Kavala since October 2017 indeed reflects the signature elements of Havel’s work.
The co-founder of Human Rights Watch, Aryeh Neier was formerly the president of the Open Society Institute.)
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A group of politicians and intellectuals from Europe and the United States have nominated the jailed philanthropist and businessman Osman Kavala, one of the most prominent human rights defenders and civil society activists in Turkey, for the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize.
Kavala was detained on October 18, 2017 over charges of attempting to overthrow the government, and remains in prison over charges of espionage that were brought after he was acquitted in the first case against him, the so-called Gezi Trial.
As of Friday, Kavala will have spent 961 days in prison.
The group that nominated Kavala for the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize, given by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in partnership with the Václav Havel Library and the Charta 77 Foundation, includes linguist Noam Chomsky and philosopher Étienne Balibar, as well as Dimitris Papadimoulis, Vice President of the European Parliament.
Václav Havel was a prominent opponent of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, and served as the country’s president between 1989 and 1992. He later became president of the Czech Republic in 1993, following its separation with Slovakia, and served until 2003.
Dimitris Papadimoulis issued a statement announcing his nomination of Kavala, and said the Turkish philanthropist was “one of the thousands of political prisoners in (Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s) regime.”
Kavala “is a symbol of the systematic oppression that has been orchestrated against civil society in Turkey, especially after the attempted military coup in 2016,” Papadimoulis said, adding that Kavala “has contributed, among other things, to the creation of numerous non-governmental organisations working to promote and protect human rights.”
Nominees to the prize are individuals involved with civil society, or civil society organisations, who have significantly contributed to the human rights standing for groups of people, been effective in uncovering systemic violations of human rights, and/or successfully mobilised the public at a national or international level towards a human rights-related goal.
The prize will be given out on October 12 this year in Strasbourg. Previous winners since 2013 have been Ales Bialiatski (Belarus), Anar Mammadli (Azerbaijan), Ludmilla Alexeeva (Russia), Nadia Murad (Iraq), Murat Arslan (Turkey), and Oyub Titiev (Russia).
Ilham Tohti, a Uighur intellectual who was sentenced to life imprisonment in China, and the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, which promotes reconciliation in the Balkans, shared the prize most recently in 2019.
As Kavala’s nomination was officially recognised, Western efforts for his release and the dismissal of charges against him are accelerating.
Three prominent international human rights organisations — International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Human Rights Watch (HRW), and Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project (TLSP) — have appealed to the Council of Europe’s decision-making body the Committee of Ministers to ensure that the Turkish government implements the European Court of Human Rights’ (ECHR) ruling in December 2019 that Kavala’s detention was unlawful.
The joint appeal urged the CoE Committee of Ministers, which is responsible for the enforcement of ECHR rulings, to call on Ankara for Kavala’s release. It also demands that the CoE state that Kavala’s continued arrest violates Article 46 of the European Convention on Human Rights and stress that his release has become even more urgent during the COVID-19 pandemic, while also demanding that the Turkish government ensure the dismissal of all charges against Kavala.
“The European Court ruled that Kavala’s detention is unlawful, and their binding judgment requires Turkey to release him immediately,” HRW Turkey Director Emma Sinclair-Webb said. “The Committee of Ministers, at its June 4 meeting, should press Turkey to comply and issue a clear message that no Council of Europe member state should be silencing human rights defenders.”
Róisín Pillay, Director of ICJ’s Europe and Central Asia Programme, said Kavala’s continued detention despite the ECHR ruling “indicates that decisions have been guided by political considerations”.
“There has been a concerted official effort to prevent Kavala’s release,” Pillay continued. “Since the European Court’s judgment, Turkey has continued to violate Kavala’s human rights.”
Meanwhile, renowned artists, politicians and civil society activists in Germany have launched a social media campaign calling for one-minute-long videos from social media users, asking “What did Kavala do?” as an initiative to highlight Kavala’s contributions to culture, civil society, and social peace, and to raise awareness of his ongoing incarceration.
Yavuz Baydar is a senior Turkish columnist, and news analyst. A founding member of the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) in Istanbul, he has been reporting on Turkey and monitoring media issues since 1980. A European Press Prize Laureate in 2014, he is also the winner of Germany’s ‘Journalistenpreis’ in 2018.
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