A Turkish court sentenced Osman Kavala, a prominent Turkish civil rights activist and philanthropist, to life in prison without parole Monday after convicting him of trying to overthrow the government by financing protests.
Kavala, 64, has been in jail for the past 4½ years on charges that he helped finance and organize protests that began as small demonstrations in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013 and morphed into mass anti-government protests.
Human rights groups say the case is politically motivated. Ten Western countries, including the United States, France and Germany, called for Kavala’s release in October on the fourth anniversary of his arrest.
The European Court of Human Rights has also demanded that Kavala be released, saying that his rights were violated. Turkey’s failure to comply with that order has led to proceedings that could see Turkey expelled from the Council of Europe.
The court in Istanbul on Monday also sentenced seven other defendants to 18 years each for aiding an attempt to overthrow of Turkey’s government. It acquitted Kavala on charges relating to a 2016 alleged coup attempt that the Turkish government blames on the network of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Kavala denies he was involved in any anti-government activity related to the protests in 2013. In defense statements Friday, Kavala said he only took food and face masks to peaceful protesters.
“The fact that I spent 4½ years of my life in prison is an irreparable loss for me. My only consolation is the possibility that my experience will contribute to a better understanding of the grave problems of the judiciary,” Kavala told the court by videoconference from Silivri Prison.
Supporters of Kavala and the other defendants sentenced Monday packed the courtroom in anticipation of the verdict and yelled out in protest after the sentences were announced.
Rights group Amnesty International called the conviction a “devastating blow.”
“Today, we have witnessed a travesty of justice of spectacular proportions. This verdict deals a devastating blow not only to Osman Kavala, his co-defendants and their families, but to everyone who believes in justice and human rights activism in Turkey and beyond,” Nils Muiznieks, Amnesty International’s Europe director, said in a statement.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Kavala of working with U.S. billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who the Turkish leader alleges has financed insurrections in many countries.
Kavala told the court Friday via video link that ties between Soros and him are “fictional.”
He said the protests in Gezi Park were “unplanned and unexpected.”
“An attempt is being made to criminalize the Gezi Park events and to discredit the will of hundreds of thousands of citizens who participated in the events,” he said.
Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.