It has been nearly a year since a Turkish prosecutor handed down an epic 657-page indictment against 16 civic activists, absurdly and baselessly charging them with plotting a violent government overthrow by organizing the nationwide Gezi Park protests of summer 2013. The charge carries a possible life sentence without parole. The indictment is the foundation of the unjust and politically motivated “Gezi trial,” which began last June and drags on despite growing public outrage within and outside of Turkey.  

At the trial’s fifth hearing, on January 28, the Istanbul court once again refused to release prominent philanthropist Osman Kavala, the main defendant, from 819 days of unjust imprisonment—defying, for the second time, the December 10 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that Kavala must be freed immediately. While the Turkish court argued that the ECHR’s decision was “not final” and therefore not binding, Turkey is by law required to follow the European court’s rulings, as part of the Council of Europe and as a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. Tuesday’s decision to keep Kavala behind bars drew wide criticism by international and local human rights lawyers and groups

This is not the only time the Turkish court breached legal norms and procedures to keep the Kafkaesque case ongoing—and to hold Kavala in prison for more than two years, despite a lack of “facts, information or evidence” showing his involvement in any criminal activity. Not only did the court refuse to release Kavala at the previous hearing, on December 24, blaming the Ministry of Justice for not providing a translated copy of the ECHR ruling on time (an account that the ministry itself denied). But it then proceeded on December 25 to hear the testimony of a key informant in a private session, without Kavala’s lawyers present. Such violations have been common throughout the Gezi prosecution, and are among the main reasons for public indignation over the case. 

In light of the court’s track record, observers have described Tuesday’s decision to remand Kavala as a stalling tactic, and as another marker of the lack of judicial independence in Turkey. In a telling sign of growing frustration with the court’s continuous violations of fair trial and due process in the Gezi case, some 50 defense lawyers reportedly walked out of Tuesday’s hearing in protest. The trial will resume on February 18. 

Tuesday’s controversial hearing came as Turkey underwent its third universal periodic review (UPR) before the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva that same day. Human Rights Watch called on the HRC to “acknowledge and address” Turkey’s “human rights crisis and the dramatic erosion of its rule of law framework.” And ten major international free speech organizations submitted a joint report to the HRC regarding deteriorating freedom of expression in Turkey. According to the ECHR’s annual report, published yesterday, Turkey was 2019’s top violator of freedom of expression among the 47 ECHR member states.  

In another development, last week the UN’s Economic and Social Council’s Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations elected Turkey as its Vice-Chair and Rapporteur, affording the country more influence over NGO accreditation at the UN. Although the role is mostly a symbolic one, it is troubling for the message it sends given Turkey’s poor record on civil society freedom. Indeed, the Gezi trial is not only a tragic case study of the breakdown of the rule of law in Turkey. It is also emblematic of Turkey’s ongoing crackdown on independent civil society and the human rights community.  


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Merve Tahiroglu is the Turkey Program Coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy.