Today, July 27, marks the one-thousandth day of unjust imprisonment in Turkey for philanthropist Osman Kavala. Kavala is a prominent civil society leader who has devoted his life and wealth to social causes aimed at promoting a more democratic, just, and tolerant Turkey. He has never engaged in violence, nor politics. His imprisonment has become emblematic of the plight of thousands of political detainees unjustly held in Turkish prisons simply for exercising their rights to peaceful opposition and freedom of expression. 

To discuss these important issues, POMED’s Research Director Amy Hawthorne sat down with POMED’s Turkey program coordinator Merve Tahiroğlu; Deniz Yüksel, Turkey advocacy specialist at Amnesty International USA; and Gina Lentine, senior program officer for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House.


AMY HAWTHORNE: Merve, let me start with you. Why has Turkey imprisoned Osman Kavala? And why is this case important?

MERVE: I find Kavala’s story illustrative of the problems in Turkey’s judicial system today. He was detained nearly three years ago and the government has since been scrambling to keep him in prison under absurd, ever-evolving pretexts. First the authorities accused him of organizing mass protests to topple the government—meaning, the 2013 Gezi protests. Kavala supported the protests, but they were completely spontaneous and by design leaderless. It took two years and six painful court hearings for a court to finally throw the whole case out and acquit him, this past February. But the authorities then immediately re-arrested him under another charge, for aiding the coup attempt in 2016—also ludicrous, as the coup perpetrators are ideological enemies of the Gezi protesters. It soon emerged that this arrest was technically illegal—because the European Court of Human Rights had reviewed both the Gezi and coup-attempt charges against Kavala, and, last December, ruled there was no credible evidence against him and called for his immediate release from prison. And Turkish courts are obligated to follow the European court’s decisions. But then the prosecution brought forth yet another absurd charge on which to keep Osman Kavala imprisoned—this time accusing him of espionage, on behalf of the United States, no less.

It’s clear that the Turkish government has for whatever reason determined this man Osman Kavala, this liberal civil society leader, to be a threat to the regime. As such, they will arbitrarily accuse him of anything that paints him as a traitor—and keep him locked up for years, despite the absurdity and indeed illegality of the situation. This is a prime example of the weaponization of the judiciary for political purposes in Erdoğan’s Turkey. 


Kavala is far from the only civil society leader in Turkey facing politically motivated charges. Deniz, the staff of Amnesty’s Turkey office faced its own prosecution in the same period as Kavala, and this month the court, shockingly, handed down terrorism convictions against these human rights defenders. Can you tell us more about this case and why it is so significant? 

DENIZ: On July 3, a Turkish court issued its verdict on the “Büyükada case,” convicting four human rights defenders including two Amnesty staffers, and acquitting seven others. The prosecution is known as the “Büyükada case” because 10 of the 11 activists on trial were detained during a human rights workshop on Istanbul’s Büyükada island in 2017. The court convicted former Amnesty Turkey chairman and current honorary chairman Taner Kılıç of “membership in a terrorist organization,” sentencing him to six years and three months’ imprisonment. Additionally, the court convicted former Amnesty Turkey director İdil Eser and two others of “supporting a terrorist organization” and sentenced them to 25 months’ imprisonment each. Fortunately, the sentences do not come into force until all appeals have been exhausted, but Taner has already spent 14 months in pre-trial detention and eight others were detained for four months awaiting trial.

While the reasoned [written] verdict has not yet been released, the acquittal of seven human rights defenders who also attended the Büyükada workshop, suggests that the convictions were due to the defendants’ previous activism rather than participation in the workshop. Taner was convicted despite the central allegation—that he downloaded an encrypted messaging application—was disproved by the State’s own evidence. The verdict makes crystal clear the nature of the Büyükada case against Amnesty Turkey staff as a politically orchestrated attack against human rights defenders, with the intention of silencing independent civil society in Turkey. 


Gina, Freedom House just published an important report about public perceptions in Turkey of freedom of expression. Can you tell us about the main findings of this report and what is happening in this space in Turkey? 

GINA: Turkey remains “Not Free” in Freedom House’s 2020 Freedom in the World index, in large part due to the level of retribution against exercising one’s right to free expression. This is a significant challenge facing not only journalists but also civil society activists like Osman Kavala, as well as writers, artists, scholars, and normal people who post criticism of the government online. Freedom House found through its recent research that pressures and restrictions against media in Turkey have contributed to low public trust in the media overall, as well as a significant shift in media consumption habits. We learned that the Turkish public has turned more and more to the internet and to social media as sources of information and news.

This shift comes with significant public anxiety about censorship, surveillance and untrustworthy information. Sixty-nine percent of respondents expressed concern about the effects of censorship in Turkey, and 64 percent revealed that they were worried about the government monitoring their online activities. Thirty-five percent of those who expressed concerns about these issues were specifically troubled by the government’s concealment of rights abuses, such as those around Osman Kavala’s case. For this reason, Erdoğan’s proposed draft law on social media, which would ultimately give the authorities more control over content online, would be a further blow to free speech in Turkey. It would affect not only outspoken journalists and activists, but the broader public, as they turn increasingly to social and online media for information and expression.


Finally, a question to all of you: Why does Turkey’s authoritarianism matter to the United States? Why should the U.S. care about Turkey’s jailing of peaceful civic actors and the suppression of free expression? 

MERVE: Here, I think Kavala’s case is of particular relevance to the United States. All three charges against Kavala—the Gezi protests, the coup, espionage—actually touch on the United States, because the AKP government and its media have pinned both the protests and the coup attempt on the U.S. government, or on American companies or citizens. So in that sense, Kavala is a casualty of anti-Americanism in Turkey, and similarly, persecutions like Kavala’s help perpetuate conspiracy theories that depict the United States, Turkey’s NATO ally, as an enemy. This is something the United States should care about, not least because similar charges have also been leveled against U.S. citizens and can be made again at any time. 

DENIZ: The U.S.-Turkey relationship has been battered by successive crises. One of the root causes for the increasingly precarious nature of this alliance is Turkey’s unstable political climate and deep internal polarization. The Turkish government has clamped down on dissent in both traditional and social media, aggressively pursuing policies without consensus. Turkey’s civil society plays a critical role in bridging social divisions and is one of the last remaining avenues for free expression.

The government’s human rights abuses are certainly a result of this unstable climate, but they are also destabilizing factors themselves. If Washington wants a stronger and less volatile partnership with Ankara, it must recognize the correlation between Turkey’s human rights record and its stability.

GINA: Under current federal leadership, civil society activists and journalists in the United States are currently struggling with similar challenges that their Turkish counterparts have been facing for years now. Now is not the time for civil society in the United States to take an insular approach to defending human rights principles and fundamental freedoms. Given the growing trend of illiberal leadership and authoritarianism worldwide, documented in Freedom House’s flagship publication Freedom in the World, the fight against suppression of freedom of expression, and fundamental rights, is a global one. In that respect, as far as rights are concerned, what affects Turkey affects us here in the United States.


Merve Tahiroğlu is POMED’s Turkey Program Coordinator. She is on Twitter @mervetahiroglu.

Deniz Yüksel is Turkey advocacy specialist at Amnesty International USA. She is on Twitter @denizyuksel130.

Gina Lentine is Senior Program Officer for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House. She is on Twitter @ginayogina.


Illustration: Murat Başol