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Turkey’s ‘Gezi Seven’ must be freed

Agnès Callamard is Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

Unlike most premieres at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the debut screening of Turkish political thriller “Burning Days” was noticeably muted. In a symbolic gesture, a solitary chair had been left empty, as one person, associate producer Çiğdem Mater, was absent from the red carpet.

Rather than being on La Croisette promenade, Mater was in a cramped Turkish prison cell, one month into an 18-year jail term. 

In a plot twist as extraordinary as any film, she was one of seven individuals who were convicted for nearly two decades in relation to the 2013 Gezi Park protests. An eighth, the prominent philanthropist and human rights defender Osman Kavala, was given a life sentence.

And today, Amnesty International has taken the significant step of naming all seven jailed Gezi defendants prisoners of conscience, aiming to highlight the chronicle of injustice they’ve suffered — from arbitrary detentions and politically motivated prosecutions to a show trial ending in these chilling convictions.

On April 25, 2022, Osman Kavala — behind bars since November 2017 — was convicted of “attempting to overthrow the government.” The prosecuting authorities accused him of having led and funded the largely peaceful mass Gezi protests against government plans to raze a public park. The demonstrations had begun in Istanbul and then spread throughout Turkey.

Kavala’s seven codefendants were convicted on the same day, accused of assisting him. Çiğdem Mater, Mücella Yapıcı, Tayfun Kahraman, Can Atalay, Mine Özerden and Hakan Altınay were immediately jailed, and an arrest warrant was issued for the eighth defendant Yiğit Ekmekçi. One of the claims against Mater was that she’d tried to raise money for a documentary film about the Gezi Park movement that was never made.

The prosecution failed to provide any evidence to substantiate the charges brought against the accused. And on June 7, 2022, the trial court published its “reasoned judgment” in which it offered no convincing grounds for its majority verdict.

Indeed, the only substantial conclusion to emerge from the trial was that Turkey’s courts operate at the bidding of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and aren’t independent, impartial, free from political interference, or fair. 

This is starkly illustrated by the fact that the defendants were initially acquitted of all charges in 2020 due to absence of evidence, and the three judges from this first trial were immediately subjected to a Council of Judges and Prosecutors’ disciplinary procedure following Erdoğan’s public criticism of the acquittals. A year later, the regional Court of Appeals overturned the acquittals, prompting a second trial.

Erdoğan has shown an active involvement in Kavala’s case from day one, and his repeated public comments have undermined the presumption of innocence — a key tenet of fair trial rights.  

However, the Gezi Seven’s imprisonment comes as no surprise in a country that’s been cracking down on human rights, especially freedom of expression, with increasing intensity since a failed coup in 2016.

In the six years since, an oppressive climate of fear has hung over Turkish civil society, creating a chilling effect. 

Overly broad anti-terrorism laws have been used to target both real and perceived dissent, journalists, human rights defenders, politicians, lawyers and scores of others. Thousands have been subjected to abusive criminal investigations, prosecutions and punitive pretrial detentions. Civil society organizations have been closed by emergency decree, and the judiciary — already lacking independence — has been used to repress peaceful dissent.

In the face of such repression, it may seem there’s little the international community can do. But emblematic cases offer focal points to ratchet up pressure. 

In Februrary 2022, for example, the Council of Europe took the rare decision to initiate infringement procedures against Turkey for refusing to implement a 2019 European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering Kavala’s release.

Following the recent guilty verdicts, the United States State Department said they were “deeply troubled and disappointed by the court’s decision,” and Germany’s foreign minister described the verdict as being in “stark contrast to the rule-of-law standards and international obligations to which Turkey is committed as a member of the Council of Europe and an EU accession candidate.”  

The shocking injustice handed out to the Gezi Seven exposes, yet again, how Turkey’s judicial system has become a repressive tool to silence peaceful dissent. And each day they spend behind bars is an affront to the concept of justice and human rights — principles the Turkish state has committed itself to upholding but repeatedly and relentlessly violates.

Yesterday, Amnesty International Turkey’s Chair Kerem Dikmen visited the seven prisoners of conscience in jail. Kavala expressed his gratitude for the solidarity. “Conscience is what stands in the way of irrationality,” he said in the prison visiting room. “It’s what prevents people from acting out of revenge or out of political ambition.

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