Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala has been sentenced to life in prison

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ISTANBUL – Osman Kavala, a Turkish philanthropist whose long imprisonment has been criticized by the United States and European countries, was sentenced on Monday to life in prison on charges that included attempts to overthrow the government, in a case that human rights groups have rejected as political. motivated.

The charges are related to a claim by prosecutors that Kavala orchestrated nationwide anti-government protests in 2013. Rights groups called it ridiculous and Kavala dismissed the charges. Seven other defendants in the case were each sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Everyone, including Kavala, has the right to appeal.

The prosecution against Kavala, who was not very well known in Turkey before his arrest in late 2017, became a source of escalating tensions with Ankara’s western allies. Before the verdict on Monday, Turkey faced a possible rare suspension from the Council of Europe, a human rights body, for refusing to comply with rulings of the European Court of Human Rights demanding that Kavala, who had been imprisoned for more than four years, be released.

Last year, Turkey threatened to expel 10 foreign ambassadors, including the US ambassador, after their embassies signed a letter calling for Kavala’s release, triggering a brief diplomatic crisis.

Turkey’s Erdogan declares 10 ambassadors ‘persona non grata’.

The court’s ruling came as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government sought to repair fences with NATO allies after years of strained relations, including by acting as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine and taking modest steps to stem the flow of military hardware to Moscow. The verdict also coincided with a visit by UN Secretary-General António Guterres to Turkey as part of a peace-building effort focused on Ukraine.

In a strongly worded statement on Monday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States was “deeply concerned and disappointed with the court’s decision” and called Kavala’s verdict “unfair”.

“We urge the government to suspend politically motivated prosecutions and respect the rights and freedoms of all Turkish citizens,” the statement said, adding that Kavala should be released.

Kavala’s long legal ordeal had come to symbolize Erdogan’s tireless repression of opposition figures, dissidents and other perceived enemies in the years since an attempted coup against the government in 2016. But even among the masses swept up in the state’s dragnet, Kavala stood out . for the extraordinary efforts Turkey made to keep him incarcerated, and for Erdogan’s apparent personal opposition to him.

Human Rights Watch said in a report earlier this year that Turkey “uses national court rulings to extend Kavala’s detention and extend the life of unjustified prosecutions. who accuse him of false offenses. “

Expression Interrupted, an organization that tracks freedom of expression in Turkey, brought a 7,000-word article that sought to decipher the thicket of legal action against Kavala, calling it “a Kafkaesque legal spiral.”

Turkish officials have repeatedly called the judiciary independent and denied that judicial decisions are influenced by politics.

Kavala, 64, founded Anadolu Culture, an organization that promotes diversity, culture and human rights. He has been in custody since November 2017.

An indictment accused him of organizing and funding nationwide protests against Erdogan’s government in 2013, considered the first real challenge to the Turkish leader’s regime. The demonstrations were triggered by a government plan to destroy green areas in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and grew into a nationwide protest movement against Erdogan’s authoritarian style.

The indictment also accused Kavala of collaborating with billionaire philanthropist George Soros to incite the protests. Kavala and Soros have both vehemently denied the charges, and Kavala was previously acquitted by a Turkish court, which ordered his release.

Instead, prosecutors prepared new charges.

The final session of the latest case began Friday and continued Monday. In front of a packed gallery that included journalists, Western diplomats and opposition politicians, defendants and their lawyers were given a chance to make final statements. Among the participants was Kavala’s wife, Ayse Bugra, a university professor.

In a lengthy speech to the court via video link from the jail Friday, Kavala explained in detail his long journey through Turkey’s judicial system, including arrests, shattered hopes of release, multiple arrests, and what he said were signs, all the while politicians had their thumbs on the scales. The trial “has been completely deformed under political influence, and my prolonged detention is an act of deprivation of liberty by abuse of power,” he said.

A Turkish activist was acquitted after two years in prison. But the prosecutor detained him again.

He added: “An attempt is being made to criminalize the events in Gezi Park and to discredit the will of hundreds of thousands of citizens who took part in the events, using the fictional scenario with George Soros and me.” In fact, he added that the protests were “unplanned and unexpected.”

“After losing 4 years of my life, the only aspect I can find comfort in is the possibility that the process I was experiencing could help confront the crucial issues in Turkey’s judiciary,” he said.

“This is the worst possible outcome,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey’s director of Human Rights Watch, calling it a “scam from start to finish” in which they presumed evidence in the case – a series of “wild claims”. – was never tested.

“No one asked him questions about what he was doing,” she said, referring to Kavala.

Also discouraging, she added, was that the verdict came when the UN Secretary-General was visiting Turkey, “without saying anything” about the trial or the human rights situation in the country.

In the shocked courtroom on Monday, when defendants were arrested and their supporters broke down in tears, some in the gallery called the name of the square where the Gezi protests began: “Everywhere is Taksim,” they shouted, “Everywhere is resistance.”

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