A Crushing Blow to Modernist, Secular and Pro-democratic Civil Society

Bolstered by the strengthening of ties with Western powers over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan felt free to pursue an all-out policy of criminalizing all forms of dissent and repression in his country. As a result, the philanthropist Osman Kavala was sentenced to life imprisonment at the end of a trial in which the law was blithely flouted both in form and in substance, according to the confession of one of the three judges of the criminal court, who opposed the verdict and called for the acquittal and release of the accused.

Detained since November 1, 2017, Mr. Kavala was accused of attempting to "overthrow the government" by planning, leading and financing the Gezi events, named after the popular uprising sparked by the proposed redevelopment of the park bearing the same name, in central Istanbul in May-June 2013. Seven other defendants, including three women, were sentenced to eighteen years in prison for "helping" Mr. Kavala. Lawyers, urban planners, architects, filmmakers, university and NGO officials, appeared free. They were incarcerated on the evening of the verdict.

February 2020, another criminal court acquitted all the defendants in the same trial, pointing out that there was no concrete evidence to support the prosecutor's extensive indictment. But a few hours before his release after the acquittal decision, Mr. Kavala was arrested on the orders of the Istanbul prosecutor with two new charges hatched for that occasion: espionage and participating in the attempted coup of July 2015. The Turkish president had intervened to challenge the acquittal decision, as he had previously intervened several times publicly against Mr. Kavala, while his trial was underway.

Today, what has become a travesty of justice has taken a tragic turn with the sentencing of Mr. Kavala to life imprisonment on the charges from which he was acquitted, like all the other defendants, two years ago. This time he was acquitted of the espionage charges fabricated by this prosecutor, who has since been promoted to the Constitutional Court. Kafka himself would have found it difficult to envisage such a trial.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) condemned Turkey for the wrongful detention of Mr. Kavala and declared the evidence against him null and void. In the name of the independence of the Turkish courts and their sovereignty (!), Mr. Erdogan called on the judges not to follow the ruling of the ECHR. The Council of Europe, for its part, began a sanction procedure against Turkey for its failure to comply with the decision of the ECHR, but the procedure is very long.

Satisfying religious nationalists

With the resumption of dialog between Turkey, the E.U. and the United States in recent days, some might have expected a rather moderate verdict on April 25. However, with these implausible convictions, the Turkish president has clearly decided to mock international opinion, particularly in Europe, and to display the autonomy and power of Ankara vis-à-vis western chancelleries. In so doing he satisfied the religious nationalists who are followers of Islamo-Turkism, which he is trying to dominate by all means, just as he is trying to "close the parenthesis" of the Westernist modernization launched over a century ago.

What matters most today to Mr. Erdogan is to deal a crushing blow to modernist, secular and pro-democratic civil society, and to defuse any hint of protest. In the midst of an economic crisis for which the president is primarily responsible, Turkish society is increasingly distrustful of the government. There is growing tension in the government's ranks in the run-up to the presidential and parliamentary elections, which will take place in 14 months' time at the latest. This is the reason why the Turkish autocrat made the conviction of Mr. Kavala and the seven other defendants a symbol of his authority.

This pseudo-legal decision is part of the repression and intimidation strategy of the pre-election period. Just like the mass arrests of elected officials and executives of the pro-Kurdish party HDP and the trial aimed at banning this party before the Constitutional Court; the resumption of military operations against Kurdish organizations in northern Syria and Iraq; the banning of associations against femicide and the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention; the opening of investigations against people, including members of parliament who spoke in favor of the recognition of the Armenian genocide; the preparation of a law banning the publication of economic data contrary to official publications; the conviction of tens of thousands of people for insulting the head of state; the continuous widening of the scope of responsibilities of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, especially in the education system; the bringing to heel of universities, including that of Bogaziçi; the imprisonment of journalists...

This list can be extended to reveal Mr. Erdogan's relentless drive to transform the current regime of elective autocracy into an Islamo-nationalist dictatorship. Mr. Kavala and those convicted with him represented the quintessence of everything that Mr. Erdogan hates about Western culture: secular and democratic freedoms. Today, those who want to live up to these values are alone in Turkey. It would be a mistake to let these major breaches of the law go because Turkey has become unavoidable in the Ukrainian conflict. It is essential to draw lessons from an excessively long period of inaction by Western democracies with regard to the actions of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.