The Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala has been sentenced to life in prison by a court in Istanbul. His crime? “Attempting to overthrow the government.”
Back in 2013, a park in Istanbul was set to be turned into a mall. Nearby residents did not want this to happen so they came out to protest. The protests soon swelled into larger, broader anti-government demonstrations. Kavala was arrested in 2017 on charges related to what became known as the Gezi Park protests. He was acquitted in 2020, but the verdict was overturned. (Fresh charges were also brought for alleged involvement in the 2016 coup attempt; he was charged with both counts at the trial.)
There are others who have been arrested in connection with the Gezi Park protests, though Kavala is one of the more high-profile and his sentence is particularly severe. It drew condemnation from various human rights groups around the world, as well as the US government.
Turkish authorities suggested that the Gezi Park protests were orchestrated by Kavala. Meanwhile, the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused Kavala of being an agent of George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist who is a favourite bogeyman of aspiring authoritarians around the world.
Turkey has elections. Turkey is a Nato member. Turkey, at one point, was negotiating to join the European Union, though accession talks have stalled. But if the hundreds of arrests of journalists and NGO workers following the 2016 coup attempt were not enough, the lifetime sentence handed down because nine years ago people decided to protest for the preservation of a park makes it clear: Turkish democracy has collapsed.
Yet this is about more than just one man. The idea that the protests were planned by one single figure with criminal intent towards the government is intended to delegitimise the very notion of protest. As though there would be no reason for Turkish people to take to the streets if they were not sent there by Soros via Kavala. But the Turkish people did take to the streets. Wannabe autocrats can insist that all expressions of dissent are coordinated and not genuine reflections of the people’s will, but that doesn’t make it so. Sentencing Osman Kavala to life in prison won’t change that.
[See also: The strange allure of the strongman leader]