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Opinion: Turkey’s path to authoritarianism

17 November 2023

Erdoğan should face consequences for his human-rights record, argues Hugh Williamson


A picture of the human-rights campaigner Osman Kavala is held aloft during a vigil outside the Turkish embassy in Berlin

A picture of the human-rights campaigner Osman Kavala is held aloft during a vigil outside the Turkish embassy in Berlin

OFFICIALLY, the verdict handed down on 28 September to the human-rights defender Osman Kavala and four others was reached by Turkey’s top court of appeal. It was pronounced well in advance, however, in speech after speech, by the country’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The verdict is a horrifying demonstration of the autocratic path that Turkey has taken under his presidency. Mr Kavala faces a sentence of life in prison without parole, and the four others tried with him face 18 years, in connection with mass protests a decade ago in Gezi Park, Istanbul.

The case shows that wild conspiracy theory and an appetite for scapegoating people in show trials have become a means of keeping in check anyone in Turkey who is inclined to question authority.

The case also has international ramifications, demonstrating that Turkey is intent on crushing the aspirations of its European and United States allies to be able to trust Turkey as a partner that respects the rule of law and shared fundamental value systems. Instead, it is endlessly testing the limits of what it can get away with by riding roughshod over human rights and creating maximum legal unpredictability. The brinkmanship and defiance that Turkey has demonstrated over this case is part of a broader trend of Ankara’s choosing to take an unpredictable line on issues of international importance to extract other concessions.

For the UK, it is clear that the new Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, will have many pressing issues in his in-tray, including the UK’s positions on the Israel-Hamas war and the Ukraine conflict. It is crucial, however, for Lord Cameron to engage with Turkey on its record of serious human-rights abuses, and, in particular, the case involving Mr Kavala.

THE Gezi trial at the heart of the case is based on a fictional rewriting of spontaneous and unplanned protests against the government. These have been perversely and blatantly falsely recast as a conspiracy by one man to overthrow it.

As a businessman, Mr Kavala inherited his father’s group of companies, but he is known, above all, for his civil-society work through his association, Anadolu Kültür (Anatolian Culture), supporting the arts as a medium for civic engagement and societal dialogue — hardly political activism, and absolutely nothing to do with street protest.

The European Court of Human Rights has twice ruled that Mr Kavala should be released from prison, and that there was no evidence to support the charges against him, or, by default, the others. Most significantly, the European Court concluded that the detention itself was politically motivated.

Turkey’s failure to release Mr Kavala and drop the case led the Council of Europe, in February last year, to trigger a sanctions process against Turkey. This “infringement procedure” is serious, and rare, having been used only once before, against Azerbaijan. Despite this, just two months later, Mr Kavala and the others were convicted. Those convictions are now final.

While President Erdoğan has completely disregarded the binding judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, the glacial pace of the infringement procedure has meant that Turkey’s defiant behaviour has yet to result in any actual consequences, such as losing voting rights at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and other penalties short of expulsion from the bloc.

Turkey’s broader strategy of extracting concessions has been clear. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the expedited NATO membership process for Sweden and Finland, President Erdoğan first held up the process for both, then insisted that ratification of Sweden’s membership was conditional on its cracking down on certain Kurds, and supporters of the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, living in Sweden, whom Turkey regards as terrorists.

He then stole the limelight at the July NATO summit in Vilnius to suggest that ratification was imminent, before again delaying the process with vague suggestions that Sweden had not yet met the conditions, and that the Turkish parliament would decide.

Turkey also relies on the fact that the Russian exit from the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe, after the invasion of Ukraine, has diminished the appetite in Europe for deepening conflict with Turkey.

AND yet, while these spoiling efforts continue, Turkey is facing a deepening economic crisis, has not managed to curb hyperinflation, and, as most analysts agree, is in need of winning US and European direct investment, in addition to that recently procured from Gulf States. President Erdoğan was in New York in September for the UN annual meetings, and joined the Treasury and Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek in trying to court banks and finance companies.

What can be the success of such efforts to secure long-term investment when such investors, seeking predictability and stability, see Turkey’s courts ignoring the rule of law and producing blatantly unfounded decisions to imprison people such as Mr Kavala at the President’s bidding?

This human-rights crisis has serious consequences for people in Turkey, but it also risks spilling over and undermining international rule-of-law standards. The UK, the European Union, and the latter’s member states need to resolve to put cases such as that of Mr Kavala and his co-accused centre stage when they engage at the highest levels with Turkey, and demand that the cruel verdicts against them must be vacated. It is long past time that Turkey faced real consequences for tearing up the rule book.

Hugh Williamson is Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

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