Turkey faces growing domestic and international backlash over the conviction of Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala, who was imprisoned for life without parole on Monday on charges of seeking to overthrow the government. The case, widely condemned as politically motivated, could strain ties with Turkey’s Western allies.
Seven co-defendants were sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey representative of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, criticized the sentencing.
“There is nothing in this trial that bears any semblance to evidence. It’s a trial built on wild assertions. And it’s really a warning not just to human rights defenders and to civil society, but to the whole society that criticism and oppositional statements and activities will be targeted,” she said. “It’s a warning to everyone that this government will come after you if it wants to.”
Many of Turkey’s Western allies also condemned the conviction. In a statement, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price called for Kavala’s release, saying the verdict was “deeply troubling” and “unjust.”
France and Germany also criticized the decision, calling for Kavala’s immediate release.
Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag responded, saying the countries had no right to criticize Turkey’s judiciary. The 64-year-old Kavala, a Paris-born Turkish businessman, is one of Turkey’s most important philanthropists, supporting civil society, backing projects including seeking to heal ethnic divides in Turkish society, and advocating human rights.
Kavala’s prosecution has become a symbol of what critics say is Turkey’s authoritarian slide under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule, an accusation the president strongly rejects.
In 2019, Kavala’s prosecution was ruled politically motivated by the European Court of Human Rights, which called for his immediate release. Meanwhile, the Council of Europe has opened a rare disciplinary case against Turkey over Kavala’s prosecution. But with Erdogan playing a pivotal role in seeking to end the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Sezin Oney, a columnist for the Politikyol news portal, said pragmatism may prevent any serious consequences for Turkey.
“Well, at this time, the Ukraine invasion and the war in Ukraine is such a serious issue, that I don’t think any Western government, neither the U.S. nor the EU countries, can be able to take really viable action against Turkey, such as sanctions or something else. This is a period when the government feels strong vis-a-vis the West,” Oney said.
Underscoring Turkey’s role in peace efforts Monday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres met with Erdogan in Ankara to discuss Ukraine. Analysts suggest Erdogan, who strongly backed his judiciary in the Kavala case, is likely calculating that the diplomatic fallout will be confined to angry rhetoric but, with Kavala and his co-defendants expected to appeal their convictions, the controversy is likely to continue.