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Turkey’s civil society condemned to silence after Kavala life sentence

Peaceful protests against plans to renovate a portion of Istanbul’s landmark Taksim Square began in May 2013 but turned into weeks of anti-government rallies after a police raid.

The venue will be deserted on May Day this year, as it has been every year since a Turkish court sentenced famous civil society leader Osman Kavala to life in prison for allegedly financing the demonstration and attempting to overthrow President Recep Tayyip’s government.

Taksim, a bustling area packed with cafes and hotels, was formerly a popular spot for May Day celebrations and anti-government demonstrations.

Erdogan is accused by critics of amassing vast authority, violating human rights, and suppressing dissent.

But despite this backdrop, Monday’s brutal verdict that condemned Kavala to life in prison stunned Turkish civil society and sent shockwaves around the world.

It comes ahead of a presidential election due in June next year.

“The message is: ‘Don’t move!’”, said Bayram Balci, director of the French Institute for Anatolian Studies (Ifea) in Istanbul.

In his office near Taksim, Akif Burak Atlar, a spokesman for the Taksim Solidarity platform, said he was “shocked” by the verdict.

The Istanbul court also handed 18-year jail terms to seven other defendants, including architects, urban planners, film producers, and academics.

– ‘There’s no crime’ –
“There’s no crime, nor evidence. They were acquitted in two previous trials. As for Osman Kavala, I saw him for the first time in court in 2018,” Atlar said.

The 64-year-old businessman and philanthropist was found guilty of “attempting to topple the government” of Erdogan, who was prime minister in 2013.

Already jailed for more than four years, the Paris-born Kavala denounced the “judicial assassination” minutes ahead of the verdict.

“These are conspiracy theories drafted on political and ideological grounds,” Kavala told the court.

“Had they had a rope, they’d have hanged me”, he reportedly told an opposition lawmaker who visited him in jail.

Some of the other seven defendants were “people concerned about preserving their city and nature”, Atlar said.

– ‘People are scared!’-
In a country where protests are quashed, several hundreds gathered on Tuesday evening in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir despite the danger of repercussions.

“People are afraid. No one will take the risk of calling demonstrations at the risk of giving the pretext to declare a state of emergency. Erdogan would be only too happy about it,” political scientist Ahmet Insel said.

“This verdict is a threat addressed to all journalists, lawyers, rights defenders, NGOs, and professionals like us,” Altar added.

Germany summoned Turkey’s ambassador to Berlin on Friday to discuss Kavala’s sentence.

Last November, the Kavala affair triggered a diplomatic crisis, with ten Western ambassadors facing expulsion for demanding “a fair and just trial.”

Friends and lawyers of the accused in the Kavala case had hoped for clemency as a result of Turkey’s mediating role between Russia and Ukraine in an attempt to settle the crisis. That, however, was not to be.

Thousands of Turks were imprisoned or sacked from their professions as a result of purges that followed a violent coup attempt against Erdogan while he was still president in 2016.

The seemingly arbitrary nature of the alternating charges brought against Kavala became a symbol for rights groups and Western countries of Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism in the second decade of his presidency.

Kavala was accused of planning a failed coup attempt in 2016, which some observers believe was the catalyst for Erdogan’s more authoritarian stance in the second half of his 20-year presidency, as well as the 2013 unrest.

Courtesy Bol News

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