A Travesty of Justice: Turkey Imprisons Prominent Civil Society Activists For Life

On April 25, 2022, toward the ninth anniversary of the Gezi Park protests in Turkey, the final hearing of the Gezi trial took place. The Istanbul 13th Heavy Penalty Court’s final verdict has given Osman Kavala, a prominent Turkish philanthropist, an aggravated life sentence without the possibility of parole, while Mücella Yapıcı, Çiğdem Mater, Hakan Altınay, Mine Özerden, Can Atalay, Tayfun Kahraman, and Yiğit Ali Ekmekçi, were sentenced to 18 years in prison for “attempting to overthrow the government” as per Article 312 of the Turkish Penal Code.


Osman Kavala and Mucella Yapici


As of May 24, 2022, Kavala has been held at the Silivri Prison for 1,666 days, most of which without a conviction or a writ of habeas corpus. He was not brought to the courtroom even for the final hearing and due to a technical problem, only his voice was heard. The other seven defendants were present in the courtroom. Following the verdict, the court ruled for their arrest.


All defendants were accused of orchestrating the 2013 Gezi protests and the 2016 coup attempt, both of which were considered by the ruling party AKP as part of an international plot to overthrow the government. Kavala had first been accused of financing the Gezi Park protests. Despite being acquitted on that charge in 2020, he was arrested again just hours later on charges linking him to the aborted coup attempt in 2016. He was also acquitted on that charge — but stayed in prison on accusations of espionage in the same case. The espionage charges served to circumvent a 2019 ruling by the European Court of Human Justice (ECHR), demanding Kavala’s immediate release.


International organizations and European governments strongly condemned the verdict, demanding the defendants’ immediate release and acquittal of unsubstantiated, politically motivated charges. As Nils Muižnieks, Amnesty International’s Europe Director, stated, “The court’s decision defies all logic. The prosecuting authorities have repeatedly failed to provide any evidence that substantiates the baseless charges of attempting to overthrow the government. This unjust verdict shows that the Gezi trial was only an attempt to silence independent voices.” The German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, also said the court's decision was "blatantly in contradiction with the norms of the rule of law and international obligations Turkey has signed up to as a member of the Council of Europe and EU membership candidate."


According to the Media and Law Studies Association group that monitored the trials, following his sentencing, Kavala said: "The aggravated life sentence demanded against me is an assassination that cannot be explained through legal reasons."


We at the Endangered Scholars Worldwide are outraged by, and strongly condemn the sentencing of Kavala to life imprisonment and are deeply concerned with the ongoing crackdown in Turkey, which disproportionately targets academics, lawyers, civil society and human rights activists in the name of intimidating the opposition and assuring the perpetuity of the state (Devletin Bekasi). Since the aborted coup attempt in July 2016, we have been closely monitoring the violations against academics and human rights activists in Turkey. We join the international organizations that condemn the politically motivated, illegitimate court verdict for the Gezi Park defendants. The ongoing tensions in Turkey have had a profoundly negative effect on academic freedom and continue to pose a grave threat to higher education on a national scale. ESW urges the Turkish authorities to implement the provisions and principles of human rights as specified in international conventions and treaties, and to drop any charges against the accused arising from their nonviolent exercise of the rights to expression, association, and assembly.