a scene from an event by an organisation campaigning for freedom of osman kavala

Osman Kavala in prison for almost two years for things that never happened

The long drive from the centre of Istanbul to Silivri, the seaside town that is home to Europe’s largest high security prison, is spent talking about the case with colleagues who are with me in Turkey, Amnesty directors from Spain and Sweden. It’s a rainy and cold morning and there is a lot of traffic. They have both been to Istanbul before, to observe the case in which 11 human rights defenders including Amnesty’s own are being prosecuted.

We are here to observe the third hearing in the surreal prosecution of Osman Kavala and 15 others. Kavala turned 62 on 2 October, his second birthday behind bars, clocking 708 days on the day of the hearing.

The way Osman Kavala has been treated is mean and vindictive

Milena Buyum, Amnesty International

The courtroom is as I left it in July, bar the large number of ring binders piled up behind the three empty chairs where the panel of judges will take their seats. We learn and are relieved that the binders are not related to the Gezi case, that this isn’t the court telling the defendants: ‘look at the mountain of evidence we have against you!’

While we are waiting for the hearing to start, we notice that Osman Kavala is already in the courtroom, surrounded yet again by around ten gendarmes, standing and obscuring his and our view. He was brought in before any of us were inside the courtroom. A few people wave at him enthusiastically, but quietly. We all know the new president of the panel of judges will not appreciate cheers and claps by the observers. He confirms this as soon as he takes his seat: ‘Anyone who claps or shouts during the hearing will be removed from the courtroom and face proceedings against them’, he states as he starts the hearing.

First up is a witness, joining via video link. We understand he is in a prison somewhere in an Anatolian province but we don’t know much more about him, and although someone behind me guesses that he might be a police officer, there is no clue as to what his knowledge of the defendants might be and why is he a witness… And we will not know, as the sound system isn’t working and we cannot hear him at all. After a short break, the testimony is abandoned and the judge moves onto the questioning of the defendants, starting with Osman Kavala.

We know this is not a court where justice is delivered

Milena Buyum, Amnesty International

Reading from the transcripts of the taped conversations in the indictment one by one, the judge asks Osman Kavala to explain them. These unlawfully wiretapped telephone conversations are varied: from whether he could bring pastries and medical masks to protect those peacefully occupying Gezi Park from tear gas (‘yes, of course’) to whether he would contribute to a pot to help with expenses such as food in the Park (‘sure, if an account is set up, I will’) through a conversation about the imminent visit by the new Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe and whether he would like to meet him (‘yes, I would’). The director of Amnesty Spain for whom I am interpreting appears to be puzzled by all this: ‘sorry Milena, isn’t Osman Kavala accused of attempting to overthrow the government?’ ‘Yes’ I reply, ‘using coercion and violence, attempting to overthrow the government by organising, financing and expanding the 2013 Gezi Park protests. It is an absurd and unfounded accusation for which the only ‘evidence’ presented is these wiretapped phone conversations, all of which date from after the start of the Gezi Park protests.’ The contrast between the seriousness of the charges and the flimsiness of the ‘evidence’ presented in court is chilling.

Osman Kavala patiently responds to each and every question, sometimes asking for clarification but never dismissing them. In fact, he thanks the judge for asking him these questions about the content of the transcripts – this is the first time since he was detained almost two years ago that he has been asked about them. While he is speaking, the two giant screens on either side of the judges show images of destruction, overturned buses and police cars, accompanying the judge’s reference to ‘vandals and vandalism during Gezi attempt’. Without disclosing the location or dates of when the photos were taken, the judge asks for written evidence from Osman Kavala, a tweet, a social media share condemning this violence. Kavala states calmly that he doesn’t condone violence, never has, and that he doesn’t use social media, a fact he has to repeat several times during his questioning.

Osman Kavala, has been in prison for almost two years for things that never happened

Milena Buyum, Amnesty International

We are startled by the next question: ‘who are you that all these people from abroad want to meet with you and speak to you?’ The tone and the question are both aggressive and provocative as well as strange. Why shouldn’t foreign representatives want to meet a prominent civil society figure such as Osman Kavala who is knowledgeable about the Turkey of today and of the past and can offer the long view of developments in the country. When Osman Kavala reveals the relevant suggested meeting never took place, the absurdity of the line of questioning becomes even more apparent. In actual fact he is questioned about a documentary film project discussed with co-defendant film producer Çiğdem Mater but never made, then about the opening of a bank account with another co-defendant Mine Özerden, never opened, and social media repudiations that could not be issued, because he does not use social media.

Osman Kavala, in prison for almost two years for things that never happened.

As the day progresses and the other defendants are also questioned about various wiretapped conversations they have had between them and with others, including jokes and gossip, we know this whole process may be a sham but is certainly not a joke. Without any reference to anything that he has heard during the questioning, the new prosecutor requests the continuation of Osman Kavala’s imprisonment. The 15 minutes recess feels unnecessary, we all have the feeling of the inevitable in the room as we stand and talk about the interim decision that is about to be handed down.

Osman Kavala will remain behind bars, this time the decision is unanimous. The judges leave, the gendarmes surrounding him stand up around him, once again shielding him from view. We are ushered out of the courtroom before he is taken away back to his cell, despite protestations and objections: they will make him walk through the vast courtroom without any friendly faces to see him go.

Once again, we know this is not a court where justice is delivered; a young woman standing next to me says ‘this is mean and vindictive.’ The only saving grace is the news that the members of parliament in the courtroom have remained. Osman Kavala did have a few friendly faces to see, and we see him in our mind’s eye. Until freedom. 

This article was first published here by Ceasefire Magazine.