Turkey: "So much space in this courtroom yet so little room for justice”

By Milena Buyum, Amnesty International

“This courtroom is 1,000 metres square and the public gallery has space for 500 people,” the clerk tells me with pride. “It has 200 seats for lawyers and 250 for defendants.” The numbers send chills down my spine. This is a courtroom designed for mass trials.

I am in the gargantuan court house that squats behind the walls of Silivri high security prison, the largest jail in Europe. I’m here to observe the start of the second court hearing of 16 Turkish civil society figures including Osman Kavala.

Osman Kavala has been in pre-trial detention in Silivri since November 2017. He and 15 others are facing fabricated allegations of ‘attempting to overthrow the government of the Turkish republic or to prevent it from performing its duties’, because of their participation in the Gezi Park protests in 2013. If found guilty, they could face life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

This courtroom has space for 250 defendants. It is a courtroom designed for mass trials
Milena Buyum, Amnesty International

I arrive in the courtroom early and watch as the immense space fills up with observers, journalists, lawyers and defendants. Suddenly, there is loud applause. Osman Kavala has entered, surrounded by a scrum of 15 or more prison guards. Two on each side hold him under the arms. He turns to us as he approaches the dock, smiling and attempting to raise a hand to wave. When he sits, the guards remain on their feet on either side of him, blocking his view of his family and colleagues.

We all stand as the three judges and the prosecutor enter and take their seats. The president of the panel of judges announces that although the hearing is scheduled to last two days, he would like it to be over in one. “I have other cases to attend to tomorrow,” he says. I wonder if this is a sign that Osman Kavala might be released today.

The case for the defence is presented first. Lawyer after lawyer explains in detail why the 657-page indictment does not contain the evidence required to justify the charge. “For the basis of the crime outlined in Article 312 to have occurred, there has to have been a clear and imminent danger,” explains one lawyer. “In criminal law, there has to be the continuum between criminal act, suspect, evidence; these three have to be connected. This indictment doesn’t bother with providing such links. Instead, it simply presents every dissenting act as a crime.”

By the time of his next hearing he will have been behind bars for almost two years, a very long period of pretrial detention even by Turkey’s terrible standards
Milena Buyum, Amnesty International

Then Osman Kavala – as the only imprisoned defendant – is called to address the court. “There is not a shred of evidence…that I have had a role in organising the Gezi Park protests,” he says. “No evidence that I participated in any meetings or gatherings that involved violence. On the contrary, I played the role of intermediary between the protestors and the authorities, to bring the events towards a peaceful conclusion. I was not questioned after the Gezi Park protests. When I was first detained, the only question I was asked regarding Gezi was about a photo exhibition in Brussels and two photographs I had on my phone. It took 16 months to prepare this indictment devoid of any evidence. I have now spent 21 months in prison. I request my release from prison.”

Osman Kavala’s impassioned appeal is met with long, sustained applause and I find myself thinking: “He will be released today, and this absurd ordeal will be over.”

The prosecutor then stands. He goes through the defendant’s requests one by one and, in a monotonous tone, asks that they be rejected. He offers no justification for his requests, no challenge or legal argument at all.

His short intervention makes me wonder whether he has listened to anything that was said over the past six hours as the defence lawyers had systematically dismantled any justification for their prosecution.

The court adjourns, and Osman Kavala is led away, surrounded by guards. We are told to clear the court room. Along with the defendants and their lawyers, only international observers, diplomats, MPs and family members will be allowed back in to hear the interim decision of the court.

After about 30 minutes we file back into the now empty courtroom. I feel a tight knot of tension in my stomach. I can only guess how Osman Kavala’s wife is feeling.

There is so much space in this huge courtroom, but so little room for justice
Milena Buyum, Amnesty International

We stand for the judges. The president of the panel of judges then reads out what he says is “a majority decision.” All the defendants’ requests have been rejected. Osman Kavala will remain in prison. By the time of his next hearing he will have been behind bars for almost two years, a very long period of pretrial detention even by Turkey’s terrible standards.

I feel the hope that I had allowed to build, disappear. I look around the vastness of this courtroom: so much space, and yet so little room for justice.

This article was first published here by Ceasefire Magazine.