(CN) – Euphoria has turned to anger over Turkey's rearrest of a prominent businessman and activist only hours after he was acquitted and released from prison on trumped-up charges that he was a leader in a conspiracy to overthrow the authoritarian government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
It was a sequence of events Franz Kafka, the dystopian novelist and author of “The Trial,” might have dreamed up.
“It is Kafkaesque, but I think it is getting far worse than Kafka's world,” Emre Turkut, a legal expert on Turkish law at Ghent University in Belgium, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
“Every once in a while the Turkish courts have surprise rulings like yesterday's, but those are strategic rulings,” Turkut said. “They just want to give the impression that the Turkish judiciary is functional."
At about 3:30 p.m. local time Tuesday, a Turkish court announced the acquittal of Osman Kavala, a high-profile philanthropist and activist who'd languished in a prison for more than two years after his arrest in November 2017.
He was facing a life sentence on terrorism charges, despite a lack of evidence of wrongdoing, with prosecutors relying on an anonymous witness and legal shenanigans such as denying defense lawyers a chance to cross-examine a key witness and the removal of a judge who favored freeing Kavala. In December, the European Court of Human Rights ruled a lack of evidence meant he should be released.
“The whole trial was a mockery,” Turkut said.
Besides Kavala, eight others were acquitted in the case that stemmed out of a 2013 protest Kavala helped organize against the development of a shopping center in Gezi Park, one of central Istanbul's only green spaces. The protest was brutally crushed by Turkish police, sparking a wave of nationwide protests that left eight demonstrators and one police officer dead and thousands injured.
On Tuesday, the courtroom erupted in cheers after the verdict. Human rights' activists, European officials and journalists declared the acquittal a bright turn of events – perhaps a sign that Erdoğan's increasingly authoritarian grip on his country was weakening. Last year, his party lost mayoral elections in Istanbul, raising hopes that his support is eroding. He faces reelection in 2023.
“They're free!” supporters said gleefully. A crowd outside the court was jubilant, holding up fingers in the sign of victory. Human rights groups chimed in. Political pundits wondered if the acquittal showed Erdoğan wanted to appease his critics in Europe and win support at a time of deepening crisis in Turkey. The Turkish economy is struggling and Erdoğan has pushed Turkey to the forefront of conflicts in Syria and Libya to the anger of Russia and European leaders.
Many observers said they were certain Kavala was set to be convicted and made to serve a long sentence. Turkey's courts have become, critics say, instruments of Erdoğan's government and the president sees Kavala as an enemy he wants behind bars. In speeches, Erdoğan claimed Kavala was working with American billionaire George Soros to overthrow his government.
Then the euphoria was eclipsed by anger and shock as news emerged Tuesday night that Istanbul prosecutors had filed new charges against Kavala. He reportedly was released from the Silivri prison outside Istanbul to only then be arrested again and transferred to another jail for processing.