Crisis with Russia seen behind acquittals in Turkish trial

The presiding judge said there was “not enough concrete evidence” that Kavala and the other 15 defendants sought to overthrow the government.
Tuesday 18/02/2020
A 2014 file picture of Osman Kavala, Turkish philanthropist, entrepreneur and rights defender, speaking at a news conference at the EU Parliament in Brussels. (DPA)
Mockery. A 2014 file picture of Osman Kavala, Turkish philanthropist, entrepreneur and rights defender, speaking at a news conference at the EU Parliament in Brussels. (DPA)

ISTANBUL - 

The surprise acquittal and subsequent rearrest of a leading civil society figure in Turkey is fanning debate about government pressure on the Turkish judiciary, cited by the European Union as one of the country’s most serious democracy deficits.

In one of the most closely watched political trials in Turkey in recent years, a court in Istanbul acquitted activist Osman Kavala over the anti-government “Gezi Park” protests of 2013. However, hours later, Kavala was detained, this time because of accusations of involvement in the 2016 coup attempt against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“I can’t believe that Kavala has been rearrested,” Nacho Sanchez Amor, the Turkey rapporteur of the EU Parliament, wrote on Twitter. “Back again in dark period.”

The decision, announced February 18, to free nine defendants, including Kavala, was a surprise. “I don’t know what to say,” said Can Atalay, one of the accused. “We never expected this.”

The presiding judge said there was “not enough concrete evidence” that Kavala sought to overthrow the government by organising the Gezi protests, sparked in May 2013 by a government decision to build a shopping mall in Gezi Park, one of the last green patches in central Istanbul.

The Gezi demonstrations spiralled into broader demonstrations against Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time. Erdogan has called Kavala an agent of US financier George Soros, whose efforts to promote progressive causes around the world have made him a target of authoritarian leaders.

Kavala, who spent more than 800 days in pretrial detention and faced a life-in-prison sentence if convicted, became a symbol of what critics say is a crackdown on Turkey’s civil society under Erdogan. Kavala was a frequent partner of European institutions in projects in Turkey.

Erdogan, speaking February 19, renewed his criticism of Kavala. He emphasised Kavala’s links to Soros, suggesting this proved Kavala was seeking to undermine the government. “There are Soros-like people behind the curtains who seek to stir up things by provoking revolt in some countries,” Erdogan said in a speech addressing lawmakers of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). “The Turkey branch of this was in prison but they dared to acquit him.”

Shortly after Erdogan’s speech, judicial authorities announced they were investigating the three judges who acquitted Kavala.

The development threw a spotlight on the relationship between the government and the judiciary in Turkey. The European Union criticised Turkey for “serious backsliding” in the area of judicial independence in its latest report on the candidate country last year.

“Concerns on the independence of the Turkish judiciary following, among other issues, the dismissal and forced removal of 30% of judges and prosecutors following the 2016 attempted coup remain,” the report said. “No measures were taken to restore legal guarantees to ensure the independence of the judiciary from the executive.”

Analysts said the treatment of Kavala was a case in point.

“The acquittals would not have been possible against Erdogan’s will,” journalist Rusen Cakir, an expert on the AKP, said in an analysis on the internet TV channel Medyascope. He added that Erdogan was also the one who ordered Kavala’s rearrest.

Opposition lawmakers said the new arrest warrant sought by prosecutors suggested that the acquittal had been controversial inside the government.

“The acquittal and the new arrest both were political decision,” Garo Paylan, an opposition MP, told a television interviewer. Mithat Sancar, deputy speaker of Turkey’s parliament said there was a “severe and very open power struggle” within the state.

Savas Genc, a political scientist and Turkey expert at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, agreed that the Turkish government was sending signals to the judiciary.

“No judge in Turkey can jail or free a prominent defendant without receiving a wink from the [presidential] palace,” Genc said by telephone. “The acquittals are a sign of the Erdogan government’s pragmatism. It wants to turn towards Europe again because of the crises in relations with Russia.”

Ties between Ankara and Moscow have come under strain because of the situation in the Syrian province of Idlib, where thousands of Turkish troops are holding territory to block an advance by the Syrian Army, which is supported by Russia.

If there was any effort to improve relations with Europe by acquitting Kavala, it was crippled by the swift rearrest. The German Foreign Ministry said on Twitter it was “consternated” over the rearrest and called for a swift investigation “respecting all rule-of-law standards that Turkey has signed up to.”

Political considerations could have been behind the postponement of another trial involving prominent activists.

The case against Amnesty International’s former Turkey chairman Taner Kilic and ten other activists heightened concerns about Turkey’s treatment of human rights defenders and helped sour Turkey’s relations with European countries, notably Germany.

Ten activists, including Amnesty International Turkey director Idil Eser, German citizen Peter Steudtner and Swede Ali Gharavi, were detained in a police raid in July 2017, while attending a digital security training workshop on Buyukada island, off Istanbul. Kilic was detained separately a month earlier.

All the defendants have since been released pending a trial verdict, which had been expected February 19 but the court said it would announce its decision in April.