Council of Europe takes action against Turkey over jailed philanthropist Osman Kavala

Europe’s top human rights body has launched disciplinary action against Turkey for its refusal to release a jailed businessman and philanthropist, striking a fresh symbolic blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s relations with the west.

The Council of Europe voted narrowly in favour of launching “infringement” proceedings against Ankara over the detention of Osman Kavala, who has remained behind bars even after an order by the European Court of Human Rights for his release.

The infringement process — likely to take at least 18 months, according to diplomats — could ultimately lead to a suspension of Turkey’s voting rights at the Council of Europe, which oversees the ECHR, or even its expulsion from the 47-member institution that Turkey has been part of since 1950.

Nils Muiznieks, Amnesty International’s Europe director, said the decision sent a “crystal clear” message to Ankara. “Turkey’s failure to ensure the immediate release of Osman Kavala and end his politically motivated prosecution is an unacceptable breach of the country’s human rights obligations,” he said. “After more than four years behind bars on politically motivated charges, he must be allowed to finally return home to his family.

Turkey, which lobbied hard to thwart a vote against it, responded angrily to the decision, accusing the European human rights watchdog and its members of taking a “biased and selective approach” to enforcing the execution of ECHR judgments. It called on the body to “respect and trust in legal proceedings conducted by independent and impartial courts”.

Kavala, who has spent four years behind bars without any conviction, has become a figurehead of a sweeping crackdown on dissent and the erosion of the rule of law in Turkey in recent years.

He was at the centre of a recent row between Erdogan and 10 western nations, including the US, Germany and France, after they signed a joint statement calling for his release.

Turkish prosecutors have accused Kavala of seeking to overthrow the government during protests in 2013 and an attempted coup in 2016 — charges that he denies.

The ECHR ruled in 2019 that Turkish authorities had failed to provide “facts, information or evidence” that justified keeping the civil society activist behind bars. It called for his immediate release and said the detention had “an ulterior purpose . . . namely that of reducing Mr Kavala, and with him all human rights defenders, to silence”.

While voting is private, three European officials familiar with the deliberations said 35 Council of Europe members voted in favour of launching infringement proceedings against Turkey — narrowly crossing the 32-vote threshold required.

In a sign of the divisions within the EU on the issue, Hungary voted against the move. Romania abstained, while Poland and Bulgaria did not cast a vote, the officials said.

The decision makes Turkey only the second country to face infringement proceedings since the mechanism for enforcing ECHR judgments was used. The first instance was against Azerbaijan in 2017 over its refusal to implement an ECHR order to release jailed opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov. Mammadov was later released and acquitted of the charges against him.

After three days of meetings in Strasbourg, Council of Europe member states also repeated their call for Turkey to release the jailed Kurdish opposition politician Selahattin Demirtas, who has also been kept behind bars despite an ECHR order for his release.

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