An Istanbul court has sentenced a prominent Turkish businessman and philanthropist to life in jail without parole in a landmark case — a verdict campaigners described as an “outrageous” blow to human rights.

Osman Kavala, whose prosecution has become a litmus test of the rule of law in Turkey, was found guilty of having sought to overthrow the government despite years of objections to his treatment by western officials, human rights groups and one of Europe’s top courts.

Monday’s sentence risks casting a shadow over President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to improve relations with the west against the backdrop of the crisis in Ukraine. Kavala’s case was at the centre of a diplomatic crisis last year after a group of 10 western ambassadors called for his release. 

The court, which acquitted Kavala on a charge of espionage, also sentenced several others to 18 years in jail for aiding what prosecutors said was his attempt to overthrow the government during protests that swept Turkey in 2013.

Kavala, 64, had already spent four and a half years behind bars without any conviction. He is seen by human rights groups as a symbol of Erdogan’s growing intolerance to dissent and the politicisation of the judiciary.

Milena Buyum, a campaigner on Turkey for Amnesty International, said the prosecution had not provided “a single shred of evidence to substantiate the accusation that Osman Kavala attempted to overthrow the government”.

She added: “This outrageous verdict is designed to send a very chilling message to the rest of civil society [and] to human rights defenders.”

Lawyers, opposition lawmakers and supporters gather in front of the Justice Palace, the Caglayan Courthouse, as a Turkish court holds a hearing of philanthropist Osman Kavala and 15 others over their role in nationwide protests in 2013,
Osman Kavala’s detention has been challenged by rights campaigners who say his case is emblematic of the politicisation of the judiciary under president Recep Tayyip Erdogan © Dilara Senkaya/Reuters

The European Court of Human Rights found in a 2019 ruling that Kavala’s detention was an attempt by the Turkish authorities to “silence” Erdogan’s critics and ordered his release.

Ankara’s refusal to abide by that ruling last year prompted the Council of Europe, the continent’s top human rights body, to launch disciplinary proceedings that could ultimately result in the suspension of Turkey’s voting rights.

Turkey argued Kavala’s detention was linked to separate charges to those examined by the ECHR.

Emma Sinclair-Webb, director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, said the verdict was a “huge act of defiance against the Council of Europe”.

She said: “It shows the lengths that this president is willing to go to to defy international law, to defy democratic norms.”

Kavala, a former businessman who used his wealth to support projects focused on conservation and minority rights, has always denied the charges against him.

He was arrested in 2017 in the midst of a sweeping crackdown that followed a bloody attempted coup that took place the previous year. In 2020, he was acquitted only to be rearrested hours later. His acquittal was overturned and the case was combined with other charges against him — the process that reached its conclusion on Monday.

Kavala has been repeatedly targeted in public speeches by Erdogan, who described him as “the person who financed terrorists” during the 2013 protests. 

Kavala has said he openly supported the protests, which began as an environmental campaign and morphed into widespread anti-government demonstrations, but that he never orchestrated them or provided them with financial support as the authorities claim.

In his defence statement, delivered by video link from Silivri Court on the outskirts of Istanbul on Friday, Kavala told the court that, after losing four and a half years of his life, “the only aspect I can find solace in is the possibility that the process I experienced could contribute to confronting the crucial problems in the judiciary of Turkey”.

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