Turkey: Rule of law under fire as activists handed down crippling sentences

ARTICLE 19 and the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC) condemn the aggravated life sentence given to Osman Kavala and the 18-year sentences handed down to Mücella Yapıcı, Çiğdem Mater, Hakan Altınay, Mine Özerden, Can Atalay, Tayfun Kahraman and Yiğit Ali Ekmekçi in relation to the Gezi Park protests in 2013. These convictions are the latest in a series of grave injustices against civil society in Turkey. We call for the immediate release and acquittal of all eight human rights defenders.

Following manifestly unfair proceedings, which were monitored by both organisations and were marked by arbitrary legal processes and political interference from start to finish, on 25 April 2022 the Istanbul 13th Assize Court delivered a verdict in the ‘Gezi Park’ trial, described by the Commissioner for Human Rights as an ’emblematic case for human rights defenders in general’.

The Istanbul court sentenced Osman Kavala to life in prison without parole for ‘attempting to overthrow the government’ under article 312 of Turkish Criminal Code (TCC). Seven other defendants, including architect Mücella Yapıcı, film producer and journalist Çiğdem Mater, political scientist Hakan Altınay, filmmaker Mine Özerden, human rights lawyer Can Atalay, academic and urban planner Tayfun Kahraman and activist Yiğit Ali Ekmekçi were convicted on charges of ‘aiding an attempt to overthrow the government’ and sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment and remanded directly to prison. These draconian sentences were imposed despite the prosecution’s continued failure to provide any tangible evidence to warrant accusations against all defendants, since Mr Kavala was first detained in 2017.

Mr Kavala, who joined the final hearing online from prison, once again denied all charges and stated that those who intended to prolong his detention “did not feel constrained by laws, considering political support they will receive”. In his defence statement, Kavala said that “According to the Ministry of the Interior, more than 3 million people participated in 5500 events” during Gezi Park protests and ‘It is also an absurd allegation that I planned, organised, and orchestrated these events; that I met the material needs of the uprising by bringing a table, a speaker, buns, and pharmacy-bought respirators to the Gezi Park’.

Silencing prominent human rights defenders

An ‘aggravated’ life sentence is the most severe sentence under Turkish law, and means the convicted person may remain in prison for the rest of their life. Aggravated lifetime imprisonment may involve severe restrictions, including prolonged solitary confinement as well as restrictions on movements and meetings with families in prison.

This particular punishment is considered by the European Court of Human Rights (European Court or ECtHR) to be in breach of the prohibition of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under Article 3 of the ECHR.

On 10 December 2019, the European Court held that in bringing charges against Mr Kavala in the ‘Gezi Park’ case, the authorities had ‘pursued an ulterior purpose, namely to reduce him to silence as a human rights defender’ and that proceedings against him were likely to have a dissuasive effect on human rights defenders. This constituted a rare finding of a violation of Article 18 in conjunction with Article 5(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention): his pre-trial detention had been for a purpose other than prescribed by the Convention. As of January 2022, Turkey is facing the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers’ infringement process over its now notorious failure to implement the binding ECtHR judgement and to release Mr Kavala.

Quinn McKew, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19 said: “The Turkish authorities are instrumentalising the judiciary and legal system to harass and silence critics and human rights defenders. This verdict, based on nothing but trumped-up charges, reveals a complete lack of human rights in Turkey. Defying the European Court’s order to release Osman Kavala and convicting him to an aggravated life sentence and seven others to 18-years imprisonment in the same case confirms the severe rule of law crisis in the country. The sentences, delivered in blatant defiance of Turkey’s international human rights law obligations, cast a deeply chilling effect on civil society in Turkey as a whole and pave a way for a further crackdown on fundamental human rights.”

Stephen Cragg, QC, Chair of BHRC, which observed and monitored the trial[1]  said: “BHRC expresses its grave concern over the flagrant and persistent disregard of the Turkish state to comply with the ruling of the Court and to discharge its international obligations. We strongly condemn Mr Kavala’s conviction and believe it lacks legal credibility, is a clear abuse of the judicial process, and violates Mr Kavala’s human rights. Turkey’s use of the judicial system to stifle the voices of human rights defenders has harmed the rule of law and inflicted severe damage on Mr Kavala, his family, and other defendants facing these extremely dubious charges.”

ARTICLE 19 and the BHRC are calling for the immediate release and eventual acquittal of all defendants. This unjust verdict deals a massive blow to all human rights activists in Turkey and must be overturned. We urge the Turkish courts to restore the rule of law, abide by Turkey’s international obligations and finally cease severe repression of  freedom of expression in the country. We are also calling on Turkey’s international partners to condemn the convictions.



Osman Kavala was detained on 1 November 2017 for allegedly organising and financing the 2013 peaceful Gezi Park protests. Alongside fifteen other human rights defenders he was charged with ‘attempting to overthrow the constitutional order’ under article 309 of the TCC and ‘attempting to overthrow the government’ under article 312 of the TCC. ARTICLE 19 and BHRC monitored this trial.

On 10 December 2019, the European Court of Human Rights delivered a landmark judgment ordering Mr Kavala’s immediate release. The European Court ruled that Osman Kavala was ‘specifically targeted because of his activities as a human rights defender and that his pre-trial detention and its extension had pursued an ulterior purpose, namely to silence him as an NGO activist and human rights defender, to dissuade others from taking part in such activities and to paralyse Turkey’s civil society’.(§216, Kavala v. Turkey, App. no 28749/18). Examining the indictment, the European Court ruled: ‘This document, 657 pages in length, does not contain a succinct statement of the facts. Nor does it specify clearly the facts or criminal actions on which the applicant’s criminal liability in the Gezi events is based. It is essentially a compilation of evidence – transcripts of numerous telephone conversations, information about the applicant’s contacts, lists of non-violent actions – some of which have a limited bearing on the offence in question.’ (§223)

On 18 February 2020, a few hours after nine defendants, including Kavala, were acquitted of the charges in the Gezi Park trial, Kavala was re-arrested for his alleged involvement in the attempted coup in 2016 and subsequently charged with ‘attempting to overthrow the constitutional order’ and ‘obtaining state secrets for political or military espionage’. The acquittal decision was overturned and the case was merged with other cases, which were supposed to justify his ongoing detention. However, in February 2022, the combined trials were separated once again, and Osman Kavala remained in prison.



[1] https://barhumanrights.org.uk/bhrc-publishes-full-trial-observations-of-the-gezi-park-trial-as-the-ecthr-confirms-osman-kavala-must-be-immediately-released/