Sunday, November 1, 2020, marks the third anniversary of the Turkish government’s politically motivated arrest of Osman Kavala, a prominent Turkish philanthropist and civil society leader who has devoted much of his time and wealth to promoting a more just, open, and tolerant Turkey. For the past three years, Kavala has been a victim of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s weaponized judiciary, unjustly held in solitary confinement on ludicrous charges. The hounding of this peaceful, highly respected man apparently is because Erdoğan sees Kavala as a threat to his own intolerant and undemocratic vision for Turkey.

On November 1, 2017, Turkish authorities arrested Kavala in Istanbul and charged him, absurdly, with attempting to overthrow the government by plotting the 2013 nationwide “Gezi” protests and with attempting to overthrow the constitutional order by aiding the 2016 military coup attempt against Erdoğan. The indictment drew widespread local and international criticism for its conspiratorial narrative, logical fallacies, and absence of evidence. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), whose decisions Turkey is required to implement, reviewed the case and in December 2019 ordered the philanthropist’s immediate release, citing a complete lack of evidence. An Istanbul court agreed, and on February 18, 2020, acquitted Kavala. 

Then, just hours after his acquittal, and before he could walk out of his Istanbul prison, another prosecutor ordered Kavala’s re-arrest based on a new outrageous charge: spying for the United States. On October 9, the prosecutor issued a formal indictment against Kavala and American citizen Henri Barkey, a professor at Lehigh University, charging them with committing espionage for the United States and supporting the 2016 coup attempt. The indictment spins a wild tale of U.S. backing for the coup attempt, giving official Turkish government imprimatur to a conspiracy theory about a NATO ally. Human Rights Watch describes the document as “bereft of legal credibility” and lacking any evidence of criminal activity. Adding insult to injury, on October 18 Erdoğan rewarded the prosecutor by promoting him to Deputy Minister of Justice.   

Kavala’s legal saga has not only silenced an important voice in Turkey. His case also illustrates the egregious deterioration of the rule of law in Turkey, and epitomizes the plight of many others who face politically motivated prosecutions under Erdoğan. Kavala is among thousands of civil society leaders, journalists, academics, politicians, and ordinary citizens unjustly imprisoned in Turkey simply for exercising their rights to peaceful opposition and free expression. Barkey is among several American citizens and consular employees whom Erdoğan’s government has unjustly prosecuted in recent years.

Kavala’s new trial is set to begin on December 18. The United States, Turkey’s European allies, and numerous international human rights groups have denounced his unjust prosecution. It is time for the Turkish government to end this travesty. The United States should urge its NATO ally Turkey to drop all charges against both Kavala and U.S. citizen Barkey, and release Kavala from prison immediately. Turkey must urgently cease its shameful practice of political prosecutions and return to the rule of law as befits a NATO member.  

Illustration: Murat Başol