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Rights court slams Turkey’s refusal to release political prisoner

Turkey has ignored an order to release philanthropist Osman Kavala, who faces life in prison for purportedly organizing residents of Istanbul to protest a government plan for urban development in Gezi Park. 

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — Europe’s top rights court found on Monday that Turkey violated international law by ignoring orders to release a jailed philanthropist. 

The European Court of Human Rights demanded the release of Osman Kavala back in 2019, saying he was arrested for “political reasons” in an effort "to silence human rights defenders" in the country. On Monday, the Strasbourg-based court ruled that Ankara “has failed to fulfill its obligation” under the European Convention of Human Rights by continuing to jail the activist and businessman.

Kavala, who worked through his foundation Anadolu Kültür to preserve the country’s cultural heritage, has been in jail since 2017 on the charge of masterminding the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Earlier this year, he was given a life sentence.

The Gezi Park protests grew out of Istanbul’s Taksim neighborhood but soon led to a wave of demonstrations across the country. An estimated 3.5 million people turned out in thousands of protests across the country, facing brutal suppression by the police. Twenty-two people were killed and more than 8,000 were injured. 

Turkish authorities accused Kavala and 15 others, including journalist Can Dündar and actor Memet Ali Alabora, of attempting to overthrow the government. The indictment pegged philanthropist George Soros as having backed the conspiracy. After exhausting his legal options in Turkey, Kavala turned to the European Court of Human Rights. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan refused to comply with the ECHR ruling, however, leading the Committee of Ministers, which oversees the implementation of court rulings, to initiate an infringement procedure against Turkey.

The 17-judge panel was nearly unanimous in its verdict that Turkey was in violation of the convention. “The Court concludes that Türkiye has failed to fulfil its obligation under Article 46 § 1 to abide by the Kavala v. Turkey judgment of 10 December 2019,”  the Grand Chamber wrote. Only Turkish judge Saadet Yüksel dissented. 

Human rights organizations have heralded the ruling. “Today’s ruling lays bare yet again the failure of the government to abide by a legally binding obligation. Turkey’s continuing inaction compounds the egregious suffering of Osman Kavala and his family,” Amnesty International said in a statement. 

It’s unclear whether Turkey will comply with a second order condemning its actions. The Council of Europe, the court’s oversight organization, said in a statement that the matter will remain with the Council of Ministers until Kavala is released. “We welcome today’s judgment which provides a definitive answer on this point. We renew our call for the immediate release of Mr. Kavala,” the organization said. 

This is only the second time in the court’s history that the infringement procedure has been used. The first was in 2019, against Azerbaijan over political activist Ilgar Mammadov's continued detention. Mammadov was eventually released and given financial compensation from the government. 

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