From violently dispersed protests to a politically-motivated prosecution that led to the convictions of Osman Kavala and seven co-defendants in Türkiye; this is a chronicle of a chilling injustice.
The political prosecution of the Gezi prisoners of conscience
The imprisonment of 7 people known as the Gezi prisoners of conscience in 2022 is one of the most acute and visible examples of the ever-worsening human rights situation in Türkiye (formerly known as Turkey).
The Gezi case spanning 4.5 years, is a farcical prosecution and a betrayal of justice, which has contravened a binding decision of the European Court of Human Rights, the implications of which are massive for human rights in the country.
Former businessperson Osman Kavala has been a prominent civil society figure since the late 1990s and has dedicated his life to promoting culture and dialogue through the arts.
But in April 2022, he was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole – the most severe sentence that exists in the Turkish penal code – after being convicted of ‘attempting to overthrow the government’.
His co-defendants – architect Mücella Yapıcı, city planner Tayfun Kahraman, lawyer Can Atalay, documentary filmmaker Mine Özerden, film producer Çiğdem Mater, higher education director Hakan Altınay and university founder Yiğit Ekmekçi were each sentenced to 18 years in prison for ‘aiding’ him.
Yiğit Ekmekçi was not present at the trial so he is not in prison despite being sentenced, but a warrant has been issued for his arrest.
“I felt sick in my stomach”, Osman Kavala said in his first interview since his conviction, which came after their wholesale acquittals in 2020 were overturned on appeal.
This verdict, at the end of a politically motivated show trial, has been condemned both in Türkiye and internationally.
So what on earth could have brought about such a shocking miscarriage of justice?
We have witnessed a travesty of justice of spectacular proportions. This verdict deals a devastating blow not only to Osman Kavala, his co-defendants and their families, but to everyone who believes in justice and human rights activism in Türkiye and beyond.Nils Muiznieks, Europe Director, Amnesty International
History of the Gezi case
Gezi Park: 2013
On 30 May 2013, police cleared Gezi Park in central Istanbul of a small group of protestors opposed to its destruction. The denial of their right to protest and the violence used by the police led to a wave of anti-government demonstrations sweeping across Türkiye. The authorities’ reaction was brutal and unequivocal.
Over the next few months, police repeatedly used unnecessary and excessive force to prevent and disperse peaceful demonstrations. The protests began to subside, but attempts by the authorities to punish the protest movement continued while police officers who used abusive force have not faced justice.
Among those to be punished in this way would be the Gezi defendants. The central accusation during their trial was that they aimed to overthrow the government and committed criminal damage when they organized, led and attempted to spread the 2013 Gezi Park protests.
What is happening is really contrary to human rights. I have no idea what is going to happen to me….but am I afraid? No, I am not afraid. If this is the price it takes to protect one tree, one house, the honour of people… it’s a price I am prepared to pay.Mücella Yapıcı speaking in 2014, at the time of her first Gezi protests related prosecution
The legacy of intolerance of peaceful protest endures in Türkiye, with indefinite blanket bans and abusive criminal prosecutions of protestors, from Saturday Mothers/People – whose decades-long peaceful vigil was banned and criminalised in recent years – to LGBTI+ Pride marches being banned, participants brutally dispersed, detained and prosecuted.
The 2016 coup attempt
The unjustifiable silencing of dissenting voices was to get much worse, as the massive crackdown on freedom of expression and other human rights in Türkiye intensified following an attempted coup in the country in 2016.
As President Erdogan’s government sought to crush this attempt to overthrow it, anyone who voiced criticism of the government – regardless of their lack of involvement in the attempted coup – became a target.
More than 130,000 public sector workers – including thousands of judges and prosecutors, teachers and others – were summarily dismissed, while overly-broad anti-terrorism laws were used to target real and perceived dissent. Journalists, human rights defenders and others were – and continue to be – subjected to abusive criminal prosecutions and lengthy pre-trial detention. Civil society organisations were closed by emergency decree.
The government created a narrative that anyone voicing criticism could be a supporter of an armed group. The judiciary, already lacking independence, has increasingly become a tool to repress legitimate dissent.
The climate of fear extended to civil society, especially those who work in human rights, creating a chilling effect on freedom of expression.
It was against this backdrop of an intense crackdown on human rights that the Gezi trial took place.
What evidence was presented at trial?
The central accusation during their trial was that the defendants organized, led and attempted to spread the 2013 Gezi Park protests, with the aim of overthrowing the government, and committed various acts of criminal damage in doing so.
The 657-page indictment presented by the prosecution failed to substantiate any of the allegations and simply built on conspiracy theories previously published in pro-government media and promoted by government spokespeople, including President Erdoğan.
The prosecution’s allegations were broad with no evidence provided to link any of the defendants with the alleged crimes.
Hundreds of pages of transcripts from hundreds of unlawfully intercepted phone calls, details of foreign travel, financial investigation reports, as well as photographs of Osman Kavala and other defendants meeting various people, were randomly included in the indictment without explanation of how any of these constituted crimes or were evidence of the crimes being alleged.
Although the indictment claimed that Osman Kavala organized the Gezi Park protests along with other defendants with the purpose of overthrowing the government, there was nothing in the indictment to substantiate this outlandish allegation. Many of the defendants didn’t know each other and there was no evidence pre-dating the Gezi Park protests to indicate such a conspiracy could have taken place.
The indictment listed the then-Prime Minister, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and ministers in his cabinet as the primary victims. It also named 746 other complainants but did not explain how they were victims of the alleged crimes.
- In the first trial – which concluded with the acquittals of all the defendants during the prosecution – and in the retrial after the acquittals were overturned on appeal, the prosecution presented no concrete evidence connecting Osman Kavala or any other defendants to any acts of violence or attempts to overthrow the government.
- No evidence was presented proving that Osman Kavala and the other seven individuals were part of a conspiracy working with foreign powers to overthrow the government.
- There was no explanation as to how the eight individuals came together and led massive protests in which an estimated 3,5 million people participated in all but one province in the country.
- No evidence was provided to justify the allegations of criminal damage and, indeed, the defendants were acquitted of all these charges in the verdict.
- As Amnesty International established at the time of the Gezi protests, the police were responsible for most of the violence, directly causing the death of at least four people, including children, as a result of their use of excessive force, while severely injuring hundreds.
- Film producer Ciğdem Mater was alleged to have been involved in the production of a documentaryabout the Gezi protests. The short documentary was never made, but the court did not take this fact into account in convicting and sentencing her to 18 years in prison.
- Claims in the indictment that George Soros financed the Gezi Park protests were devoid of any evidence. The prosecuting authorities have never questioned him during the investigation nor listed him as a suspect.
The only real evidence to emerge from this farcical trial is that Türkiye’s courts operate at the bidding of the President Erdoğan’s government and are not free from political interference.
This unjust verdict shows that the Gezi trial was only an attempt to silence independent voices.Nils Muiznieks, Europe Director, Amnesty International
Who are the Gezi prisoners of conscience?
Former businessperson Osman Kavala has dedicated his life to promoting culture Former businessperson Osman Kavala has dedicated his life to promoting culture and dialogue through the arts. Setting up Anadolu Kültür and arts centres in several provinces around the country, as well as projects to promote artistic expression, creating opportunities to those who did not easily access them, Osman Kavala spent the last twenty years enriching the melting pot of Türkiye’s vibrant cultural scene.
Mücella Yapıcı is an architect and was the secretary of the Istanbul branch of the Chamber of Architects at the time of the Gezi Park protests. She was among 26 people prosecuted for “opposition to the law on meetings and demonstrations” and one of five people accused of “setting up and leading an [unlawful] organization” for their role in Taksim Solidarity, a case in which they were all acquitted in 2015. The Gezi retrial was the third prosecution she faced in relation to the mass protests of 2013.
Tayfun Kahraman is a town planner and a member of Taksim Solidarity. He works at the Greater Istanbul Municipality as its urban planning co-ordinator.
Can Atalay acted as the lawyer of Taksim Solidarity and of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects during Gezi Park protests in 2013. He is representing the families in many prominent cases challenging impunity, such as in relation to the 2014 Soma coal mine explosion in which over 300 miners were killed and the 2018 Çorlu train derailment where 24 people were killed and over 300 people injured.
Mine Özerden is a member of the Taksim Platform, another civil society umbrella group established in 2011 in response to the proposed redevelopment of Taksim Square. She is a documentary filmmaker who has worked in advertising and in civil society organisations.
“We were unlawfully in prison in what can only be described as a massacre of justice. It is not the power of justice, but the justice of the powerful that is in operation… What kind of justice is this?”
Çiğdem Mater is a film producer. Between 1997 and 2005, she worked as a reporter, translator and producer for various international press organizations, including ARTE, the Boston Globe, Le Nouvel Observateur, the Los Angeles Times, Radio France International and Sky News. She worked as a programme coordinator at Anadolu Kültür between 2005 and 2009 and as a coordinator at the Boğaziçi University Mithat Alam Film Centre between 2009 and 2010. Since 2010, she has worked as a producer on various Turkish and international feature films and documentaries.
“There is a shared feeling: one day, this can also happen to us! This is not just the problem for Osman, Mücella or Çiğdem, not the sole issue of eight people. This is the struggle for justice in Türkiye.”
Ali Hakan Altınay is a board member at Anadolu Kültür. He is a former chair of the Open Society Foundation’s Türkiye branch. He is the founder and director of the Global Civics Academy, an online academy providing courses on global civics.
Ali Hakan Altınay is a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, a global ethics fellow at the Carnegie Council and a world fellow at Yale University. He is the author of Global Civics: Responsibilities and Rights in an Interdependent World.
An eighth defendant, Yiğit Ekmekçi, was not in the courtroom at the time of the verdict and was not detained to be taken to prison. A warrant for his arrest has been issued and should he be detained and imprisoned, Amnesty International would also designate him a prisoner of conscience.
Yiğit is the deputy chairperson of Anadolu Kültür and a board member of Terakki Foundation Schools.
He was a founder of the Nesin Foundation, İstanbul Bilgi University and the Mezopotamya Foundation.
International support for Osman Kavala
Osman Kavala’s case in particular is seen as emblematic of the human rights crackdown in Türkiye and has received international condemnation.
He spent more than four and a half years imprisoned on baseless charges before his conviction in April 2022.
In December 2019 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Osman Kavala’s detention was ‘pursuing an ulterior purpose’, meaning it was politically motivated and violated his right to liberty.
The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, which monitors the implementation by member states of the binding rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, has repeatedly called for Osman Kavala’s release in line with the ECtHR ruling. Türkiye has ignored this legally-binding decision and refused to release him from prison, which led to case being referred back to the European Court, initiating infringement proceedings.
In February 2020, along with his co-defendants, Osman Kavala was acquitted of all the charges related to his alleged involvement in financing Gezi protests, only to be immediately detained under equally baseless charges of ‘military and political espionage’.
Despite the lack of any evidence, he remained in prison, until his conviction on appeal at the retrial of ‘attempting to overthrow the government’, for which he was sentenced to aggravated life in prison. Aggravated life imprisonment does not allow for release on parole.
What has become apparent from the prosecution’s shifting arguments in this case – from alleged financing of Gezi protests, to attempting to overthrow the government, to military and political espionage – is that the justice system is being manipulated to pursue not justice, but punishment of government critics. It has been used not to find ‘the punishment to fit the crime’, but rather to find a crime which could fit the punishment desired.
His life sentence comes as a slap in the face to Türkiye’s international partners, to law and justice and it cannot go unanswered by European institutions or member states.
Prisoners of Conscience
The seven Gezi defendants who are currently imprisoned have now been designated prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.
This status is given to people who have not used or advocated violence or hatred in the circumstances leading to their imprisonment, but who are being imprisoned because of who they are or what they believe.
All prisoners of conscience should be released immediately and unconditionally.
I am thankful for all the support, the messages of solidarity. For those inside, this support is very valuable. It will also be very important for the other friends who were convicted in the Gezi trial.Osman Kavala, from Şirin Payzın's interview with Osman Kavala published in Halk Tv on 6 May 2022
What needs to happen
- European governments and institutions should raise the case of Osman Kavala and his co-defendants with their Turkish counterparts immediately, calling for their immediate and unconditional release.
- Use the instruments at EU and member state disposal to promote genuine human rights reforms in Türkiye and ensure that human rights are placed at the centre of any considerations to bolster cooperation with the authorities, including the possible upgrade of the EU-Türkiye Customs Union.
- Türkiye must implement the ECtHR judgment with respect to Osman Kavala and immediately and unconditionally release him and also his co-defendants, and discontinue any ongoing proceedings against them.
- The Turkish judiciary should end the prolonged and arbitrary detention of politicians, human rights defenders lawyers, journalists, writers and others imprisoned solely for exercising their human rights and refrain from arbitrary and punitive criminal investigations and prosecutions.