Sparking Rage, Turkey Rearrests Acquitted Activist

(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.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (AP Photo/Ali Unal)

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.

Prosecutors now are accusing Kavala of taking part in the failed 2016 coup d’etat that Erdoğan alleges was masterminded by American-based preacher Fethullah Gulen. He faces being sent back to the Silivri prison, where he spent 840 days in detention.

“We are shocked by this new imprisonment,” Germany’s foreign ministry said in a statement. It demanded an explanation for the new charges against Kavala.

On Wednesday, the Council of Europe, a human rights organization of which Turkey and all European Union states are members, blasted Turkey for undermining the independence of its judicial system. Only the day before, the council had welcomed the acquittal.

In a report, the Council of Europe called on Turkey “to restore judicial independence and stop the practice of targeting human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists and silencing them by using administrative and judicial actions.”

After the 2016 coup attempt, Erdoğan ordered a state of emergency and oversaw a severe crackdown on individuals his government perceives as threats.

About 80,000 people have been jailed following the coup attempt and about 150,000 civil servants, military personnel and others have been fired or suspended from their jobs. Also, more than 20,000 teachers have had their licenses revoked and scores of schools, universities, trade unions,  media outlets, foundations and even hospitals have been closed. The latest wave of arrests took place Tuesday. State media reported arrest warrants were issued for about 700 people.

Erdoğan and Gulen were once allies, but their friendship broke apart in 2013 during a corruption investigation that threatened to topple the government. Erdoğan now accuses Gulen of seeking to create a “parallel state” in Turkey.

Gulen has denied involvement in the coup attempt, in which about 250 people were killed and more than 2,000 wounded.

The Council of Europe report said Erdoğan’s actions have “had devastating consequences on judicial independence and impartiality and threaten the rule of law and human rights in Turkey.”

It added that the Turkish judiciary displays “unprecedented levels of disregard for even the most basic principles of law” in dealing with terrorism cases, such as those brought against individuals accused of taking part in the attempted putsch. It said Turkish courts are failing to uphold basic principles, for instance a defendant’s presumption of innocence, no punishment without a crime and not being tried twice on the same facts.

Kavala’s rearrest was similar to another high-profile case involving Ahmet Altan, a journalist and novelist. In November, Altan was released from Silivri prison and then arrested a week later over alleged links to the failed 2016 coup. Altan had spent three years in prison.

For his part, Erdoğan was showing no sign of backing down or seeking to be conciliatory.

On Wednesday, in a speech to members of his party, the AK Party, he warned that his enemies wanted to oust him with a new coup attempt; he charged that the opposition party needed to be investigated for links to Gulen and he threatened to take action in Syria soon against Russian and Syrian forces bombing the city of Idlib, a stronghold for Turkish allies in Syria.

As for the Kavala acquittal, Erdoğan claimed it was part of the conspiracy against his government. “They hatched a scheme to have him acquitted,” he said.

Turkut, the Ghent University expert, said keeping Kavala in prison is Erdoğan’s goal.

“All they want to do is keep him in jail,” he said. “As long as they keep him in prison that will give a strong message to the domestic audience.”

He said Kavala’s rearrest was “a textbook example of authoritarian politics.”

“He’s truly a political prisoner,” Turkut said.

He said reforms to the judiciary in 2010 have given Erdoğan ever more power over the courts. “Today we have a fully authoritarian system in place,” he said.

“The destiny of the nation is in the hands of one man,” Turkut added. “Erdoğan created that system for himself. It was a vision for himself, not a vision for the country.”

He said Europe’s institutions could play a role in forcing Turkey to change its behavior. For example, he said the Council of Europe could consider freezing Turkey’s membership to the organization and that the EU too could take measures to rein in Erdoğan’s government. Turkey has been talks with the EU about joining the bloc for years, but that is now a very remote prospect and those talks have gone into a deep freeze.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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