Turkey’s Kavala life sentence: A president’s revenge


On Monday 25 April 2022 in Istanbul, Turkish philanthropist and civil society activist Osman Kavala was sentenced to life in prison, marking a new low in Turkey’s downward slide into authoritarianism since at least 2013.


The judgment against Turkish philanthropist and civil society activist Osman Kavala and seven co-defendants in Istanbul, on the evening of Monday 25 April 2022, marked a new low in Turkey’s downward slide into authoritarianism since at least 2013. Kavala, who, according to the European Court of Human Rights, has been wrongly detained for four and a half years, has now been ordered by the Turkish State to spend the rest of his life behind bars. His co-defendants, seven civil society activists who were previously at large, are to be imprisoned for at least 18 years; they were arrested in the court room without even awaiting the outcome of the appeal procedure. It wasn’t exactly a surprise that this would happen – even so, it felt like a kick in the guts when it did. Bewildered faces, many crying.

When it came to relations with the EU and the US things had calmed down in recent months.. The ongoing economic crisis and the fact that Turkey risked isolation on almost all foreign-policy fronts had had the effect in recent months of sending Ankara back towards Washington, Brussels and Berlin. Any illusions that this foreign-policy rapprochement could have positive consequences for the situation inside the country, however, were shattered by the judgment.

Costs and benefits?

What is unclear is how the Turkish government will even benefit from the Kavala case, looking at it from a purely cost-benefit point of view. On the debit side, diplomatic complications: after the judgment, condemnation flooded in from European capitals and Washington. German Foreign Minister Baerbock, usually fairly diplomatic on Turkish matters, got tough, calling for his immediate release. The Kavala case is seen by many in the EU as a barometer for whether any kind of good natured relationship with Ankara may ever be possible.

And on the credit side… practically nothing. The name Kavala, as familiar as it is to his friends and supporters in Turkish civil society, is unknown to the majority of Turkish people. It was not until the winter of last year when the so-called ambassador crisis escalated, when Turkish President Erdoǧan threatened his most important Western allies with an immediate cessation of diplomatic relations because their ambassadors had openly called for Kavala’s release, that the latter came to the notice of many ordinary citizens. Keeping Kavala behind bars is certainly having some kind of chilling effect on civil society and the opposition, but not one that is likely to make the situation much worse for these groups, which have been under pressure for years anyway. Releasing him would have prompted little public reaction. Other than a few mutterings from the nationalistic corner, it is highly unlikely that President Erdoǧan would have risked any damage to his election chances in 2023.

If, then, the cost to the government of the judgment considerably outweighs its benefits, why does the President have the bit so firmly between his teeth?

There is certainly an element of defiance in the story. Simply the fact that the EU and US have openly issued demands has led Ankara to reject them, as a matter of principle. But that is not the whole story. Entirely different changes in policy have been possible in recent years: the rapprochement with Israel, even though Erdoǧan saw the country as some kind of nemesis for many years, the release of the American pastor Andrew Brunson and the German journalist Deniz Yücel, even though the two had been branded “terrorists” shortly before, alignment with Russia, even though the Turkish air force had recently shot a Russian fighter jet out of the sky and the Russian ambassador to Ankara was murdered shortly afterwards. The lesson to be learned from this is that Ankara does not like to be told what to do, but if the necessity is great enough, then pride can be swallowed.

There can therefore only be one explanation: the personal revenge of the President. And something that politicians and diplomats between Berlin and Brussels often have an insufficient understanding of, since it tends to play only a very minor part in their political reality: ideology.

The Gezi protests

When the Gezi Park protests broke out in 2013, the President tried – reluctantly – to pour oil on troubled waters; he met with several of the people who have now been sentenced, to try to persuade the protesters to go home. The mediation broke down over police violence and intransigence of the government. Even then, members of Erdoǧan’s inner circle reported that he was obsessed by the idea that the protests, largely by younger individuals whom he did not understand, were an attempt to overthrow him, masterminded by another country, most likely the US. Mindful of the waves of protests that had driven a number of presidents from office in the Middle East and the coup in Egypt later that summer, plus domestic-policy clashes with the Gülen movement, resulting firstly in corruption investigations against Erdoǧan’s family in late 2013 and then, in 2016, in the failed coup, the President more and more became convinced that it was not only the opposition and rivals in Turkey who wished to drive him from power, but also figures in other countries. Erdoǧan and his circle still talk of a seamless series of three attempted coups: the Gezi Park protests of 2013, the corruption investigations the same year and the military coup of 2016.

Osman Kavala would appear to be a perfect fit with this theory: he speaks English, he has a wide network of contacts in the US and Europe and previously sat on the supervisory board of the Turkish offshoot of billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. Not only is Soros an American citizen and believed by the dangerously misguided narrative of the global Right to be the architect of much political upheaval, he is the child of Jewish Hungary. He is therefore a perfect target for Erdoǧan’s narrative and others from Islamist and nationalist circles: “foreign agents from outside”, a traitors from within” and the so-called “Üst Akıl” – a kind of power behind the throne (and crypto-speech for “world Jewry”), which he also alleges to be also responsible for Turkey’s economic problems, orchestrated Gezi and continue to weaken Turkey.

Erdoǧan’s power position

In Turkey, this equally bizarre narrative falls on fertile ground. Even in educated circles, an unbelievable number of people give credit to one conspiracy theory or another about the threat to Turkey from overseas, particularly the West. As the result of a Western bloc-policy during the Cold War that frequently disregarded human rights and decades of propaganda spewed from right and left, many Turkish people are highly receptive to much of what Erdoǧan puts forward. This does not necessarily mean, however, that in times of rising prices, they are going to be particularly interested in the government narrative around protests that took place nine years ago.

Observers of Turkish politics are therefore unsurprised by the government propaganda underlying the judgment. This ideology has often been dismissed as an instrument of internal mobilisation. Many Western diplomats and politicians simply cannot imagine that the things the President says out loud actually reflect his view of the world. Not just because so much of it is arrant nonsense, but also because the President has shown himself so many times to be an absolute political realist. That ideology is often more than just a smoke screen for the masses should have become evident to foreign policy makers again at least since we are seeing the very practical implications of Russian dreams of an empire in Ukraine. It seems, many things President Erdoǧan utters, actually reflects his genuine world view. And in this view “the West” is a morally questionable ally, in rapid political decline and can only be a temporary ally out of necessity.

And this is the real point at issue for European and German foreign policy. At a time when Turkey is gaining in geopolitical importance because of the Russian war, there is a great likelihood that despite all the outrage in Berlin political circles about the Kavala judgment, the balance will fall in Ankara’s favour once again. Ankara is convinced that Turkey is simply too important for the west for serious pressure to be brought to bear on it! The experiences of recent years strongly suggest that the Turkish government will be proven right once again. The current infringement proceedings of the Council of Europe, based, amongst other things, on the Kavala case, could therefore ultimately force the member states to decide whether they wish to keep an uncooperative Turkey on the committee, or throw it out altogether. The wind in Berlin and elsewhere seems to be blowing in the direction of a softer punishment. The question, however, is what kind of partner is a state in which broad swathes of the political higher echelons appear to have a worldview in which many of their Western allies are the eternal enemy? This is a dilemma that may face a Green Turkey policy, which is urgently called upon to clarify whether its course will deviate in any way from that of the previous governments: close our eyes and hope for the best!

For the future of Turkey, on the other hand, there is little prospect of improvement. The judgment will be appealed against, but as long as the President is hell-bent on revenge, there is not much hope. Only an opposition election victory next year could allow the prisoners to taste freedom once again. But whether that will happen is anybody’s guess – apart from those with whom the government’s ideology resonates anyhow, many Turkish people problems other than Osman Kavala.

Hours after the judgement came out, darkness having long fallen over the empty court building, choirs of voices could still be heard repeating the slogan of the Gezi protests: Taksim is everywhere, resistance is everywhere! But they are only a couple of hundred people – the sound of their slogan dies away quickly in the night.


This article was first published in German on boell.de.