Turkey: Activist’s life sentence serves as warning to opposition in 2023 elections


Respected Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala, who earned the ire of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been sentenced to life in prison after being charged with attempting to overthrow the government.

An Istanbul court on Monday also sentenced seven other dissidents to 18-year prison terms.

But the life sentence against Mr. Kavala and the other dissidents were deemed as signals to the political elite. The message is that Mr. Erdogan will seek to maintain tight controls over the political space ahead of the vote scheduled for 18 June 2023.

A weakened Mr. Erdogan will face off against an emboldened and increasingly popular opposition.

“Election season is approaching,” one Ankara insider told The Independent in an interview. “There’s dissolution within the state apparatus, and he’s trying to intimidate the ruling class.”

Mr. Kavala has been in prison for nearly five years without any verdict and despite an order by the European Court of Human Rights, to which Turkey is a signatory, to release him.

He was first accused of organising 2013 protests against Mr. Erdogan’s decision to revamp Istanbul’s Gezi Park. The demonstrations escalated into a nationwide months-long movement against the leader’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

A court later dismissed the Gezi Park charges and ordered him released. He was immediately re-arrested on charges of taking part in a 2016 coup attempt against Mr. Erdogan. That violent debacle has been attributed to the movement of an Islamic cult leader who despised Mr. Kavala and his elite segment of Turkish society.

Amnesty International said the Kavala case “defies all logic” and that “prosecuting authorities have repeatedly failed to provide any evidence that substantiates the baseless charges of attempting to overthrow the government”.

The prosecution has attracted worldwide attention. After the verdict, the US State Department issued a statement of condemnation that was unusual in its length and detail.

“His unjust conviction is inconsistent with respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law,” said Ned Price, spokesperson for the US State Department. “We remain gravely concerned by the continued judicial harassment of civil society, media, political and business leaders in Turkey.”

In February, the Council of Europe launched infringement proceedings against Turkey over its failure to release Mr. Kavala. That process could lead to Ankara’s expulsion from the body.

Then in October, Mr. Erdogan nearly sparked a major diplomatic crisis after threatening to expel diplomats from nearly a dozen countries that issued a statement calling for Mr. Kavala’s release.

International officials with contacts deep inside Mr. Erdogan’s government have sought to lobby the president for the release of Mr. Kavala. They have come away empty-handed. Mr. Erdogan last year called Mr. Kavala “Soros scum” referring to American philanthropist George Soros, who conspiracy theorists believe was behind the colour revolutions that brought down dictatorships in eastern Europe.

Class resentments may be at the root of Mr. Erdogan’s animosity. Unlike Mr. Kavala, who was the scion of a wealthy and highly educated family, Mr. Erdogan grew up relatively poor in a working-class district of Istanbul.

“He holds personal grudges,” said Nevsin Mengu, an independent Istanbul-based political journalist and columnist.  “He’s been holding this personal grudge for many years.”

But many analysts say the harsh ruling is meant to tighten the political space ahead of elections. Repeated polls show Mr. Erdogan losing to several opposition figures—including Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, Ankara mayor Mansur Yavas, and centre-left opposition party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu—in a head-to-head matchup.

Support for his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its far-right junior partner has fallen to under 40 per cent amid an economic crisis, inflation and unemployment.

Already top civil servants and officials have begun building ties with the opposition ahead of what they perceive may be a massive change. (Source: Independent UK)