Turkey’s contempt for human rights and the rule of law is threatening to make it only the second country ever to face infringement proceedings at the Council of Europe (CoE). On September 17, the CoE’s Committee of Ministers agreed to initiate the infringement process—a powerful tool to impose sanctions against member states who defy the CoE’s rules—against Turkey in December unless the country releases political prisoner Osman Kavala. A prominent civil society leader, Kavala has been unjustly jailed for almost four years despite a 2019 ruling by the CoE’s judicial body, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), ordering his release. Should Turkey face infringement proceedings, it could not only lose its voting rights—or even its membership—at the CoE, but also suffer tremendous damage to its reputation and relations with other European institutions.

The Kavala case captures the fundamental issues plaguing Turkey’s relationship with and image in Europe, namely the government’s ongoing human rights abuses and defiance of international law. Kavala, an Istanbul philanthropist widely revered for his role in advancing human rights and tolerance through the arts, was arrested in 2017 for allegedly committing Turkey’s most serious crimes: threatening the government, state, and constitutional order. Specifically, authorities accuse him of sponsoring and organizing mass anti-government protests in 2013 and aiding a 2016 coup attempt by committing espionage for the plotters, whom Turkey has deemed a terrorist group. The United States, European governments, and Turkish and international NGOs have all denounced the charges as ludicrous and the two indictments as devoid of evidence. Yet Kavala remains locked up in solitary confinement, facing a life sentence.

Critically, Kavala’s continued detention violates both Turkish and international law. As a member of the CoE and a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights, Turkey is bound by its own laws to implement the ECHR’s verdicts. In December 2019, the ECHR completed its review of Kavala’s case and, finding no evidence of wrongdoing, ordered Turkey to release him immediately. Turkey’s failure to do so is a blatant violation of the ECHR’s ruling and its own obligations as a CoE member. Turkish human rights groups have long been calling on the CoE to start infringement proceedings against Turkey because of the Kavala case.

Despite the pressure, Turkish courts have shown no interest in letting Kavala go. Kavala is a political prisoner, detained at the behest of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, and the subservient Turkish judiciary is unlikely to defy the president’s wishes. Just last month, a court merged Kavala’s case with an even larger case concerning the 2013 mass protests, expanding the scope of his prosecution and extending his trial. These moves indicate that Kavala could remain behind bars far past the CoE’s December deadline.

Yet infringement would bear high costs for Turkey. The CoE is one of Europe’s most important multilateral institutions, and Turkey has been a member since 1950. Ankara values this membership greatly, especially in light of its awkward relationship with the EU after its failed accession process and uncertain relationship with Germany, its largest trading partner, as Berlin goes to elections. Infringement proceedings would threaten one of the key links Turkey has to Europe and further tarnish its international image. So far, Azerbaijan is the only country to have faced infringement at the CoE, also for defying an ECHR order, in 2017. Azerbaijan ultimately complied with the ruling, and the CoE dropped the proceedings in 2020. Turkey had also faced the threat of infringement back in 2003, though it ultimately complied with the ECHR order and escaped punishment.

Freeing Kavala before December could help Erdoğan avoid the worst outcome at the CoE. Indeed, releasing Kavala would not only end the years-long gross injustice he and his family have faced but also signal to the CoE and other global partners that Turkey respects its international responsibilities. In the long run, however, freeing Kavala alone will not be enough to normalize Turkey’s relationship with the CoE or change its global image as a serial violator of human rights. Notably, the CoE’s September 17 warning also urged Turkey to comply with another recent ECHR ruling to immediately free Kurdish opposition leader Selahattin Demirtaş of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), who has been unjustly imprisoned since 2016. As long as Turkey, with its thousands of other political detainees and disregard for the rule of law, remains among the ECHR’s top offenders, its fraught relationship with the CoE and tarnished global image will both be here to stay.


Merve Tahiroğlu is POMED’s Turkey Program Coordinator. Find her on Twitter @MerveTahiroglu.

Photo Credit: European Parliament on Flickr