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What does the Gezi trial tell us about Erdoğan’s regime in Turkey?

Point of View, 09.05.2022 Research Areas

For nearly five years, Osman Kavala sat in prison without a sentence. Now the philanthropist has been sentenced to life imprisonment for attempting to overthrow the government. The trial has shown that rule-of-law principles do not count in Turkey. This poses a dilemma for the EU, says Berk Esen.

On April 25 a Turkish court sentenced Osman Kavala, prominent Turkish businessman and philanthropist, to life in prison without parole for “attempting to overthrow the government by force” on the charge of organizing the 2013 Gezi protests. Seven other activists were sentenced to 18 years for allegedly aiding Kavala. Gezi protests, which broke out in 2013 over government plans to raze a public park in order to construct a shopping mall, soon transformed into massive anti-government protests. Since then, Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly portrayed the protests as an insurrection and accused the defendants of stirring the protests to topple the government.

Controversial verdict

The court case against Gezi protests counts as one of the most egregious and partisan prosecutions conducted during Erdoğan’s rule. The defendants were initially acquitted of all charges by a penal court in 2020. However, after Erdoğan’s criticism of the 2020 ruling, the court of appeals overturned the verdict, thereby paving the way to a second trial. The harsh sentences mark some of the most severe crackdowns on freedom of assembly in Turkey over the past decade and demonstrate the total capitulation of the judicial system under Erdoğan’s rule after Turkey’s transition to a presidential regime in 2018.

On numerous occasions, Erdoğan has attacked Kavala personally, accusing him of being “the Soros of Turkey.” Still, the Gezi trial goes beyond a personal vendetta against Kavala and the other seven defendants. Accusing Kavala of masterminding Gezi allows the government to put the blame for the protests on outside actors. In reality, though, Gezi protests did not have a leader and developed spontaneously due to the strength of Turkish civil society at the time. The Gezi trial comes at a time when Erdoğan’s popularity is waning due to the economic downturn and the migration crisis, and it is likely to serve to intimidate government opponents and criminalize protests.

Peace in the world, autocracy at home

The Gezi verdict was announced in the wake of Erdoğan’s efforts for reconciliation with the US and the EU after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In recent weeks, Ankara has been praised by Western governments for providing Ukraine with arms and closing the Straits to Russian warships. Erdoğan skillfully used the Ukrainian crisis to break his regime’s diplomatic isolation and followed a balancing act that supported Ukraine militarily and diplomatically without antagonizing Russia. Erdoğan’s rapprochement attempts in the international arena serve as a stark contrast to the increasing repression against his critics in the country. Last week’s sentencing can be seen as Erdoğan’s calculation that the crackdown on his domestic critics would go largely unnoticed in the West due to the war in Ukraine. Faced with increased opposition coordination, Erdoğan faces a tough reelection battle in the upcoming months. As a result, Erdoğan is expected to step up the pressure on his opponents until the next presidential elections, which are scheduled for the summer of 2023.

The Gezi verdict is an ominous warning for other political cases that are still pending. The closure case against the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is arguably the most consequential among them. Accused by the state prosecutor’s office of having close organizational links with the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the HDP case will soon be decided by the Turkish Constitutional Court. Hundreds of HDP politicians, including the party’s former chairman Selahattin Demirtaş, are already in prison. If the Constitutional Court decides against the HDP, Turkey’s third-largest party will be closed down and hundreds of politicians will face a political ban of five years. Another important case involves İstanbul’s popular elected mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, who is currently facing several investigations that could result in his removal from office, and even conviction. As the judicial system comes under Erdoğan’s control, these cases will be decided on partisan calculations rather than law.

Lastly, the Gezi trial poses a serious political dilemma for the EU. Turkey’s accession talks with the EU have stalled over the past decade. And yet, the two sides continue to enjoy an important working relationship on security issues and migration. Turkey’s geostrategic importance was further pronounced after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, the Gezi sentencing is poised to push Turkey further away from Europe and complicate the EU’s efforts to cooperate with Erdoğan’s government. Due to Kavala’s case, the Council of Europe had already launched infringement proceedings against Ankara, at the end of which Turkey could lose its voting rights or even its membership. Germany, France, and the US, along with EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, expressed their dismay at the unfair treatment of the Gezi defendants. For instance, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the verdict was “in stark contrast to the rule-of-law standards and international obligations to which Turkey is committed as a member of the Council of Europe and an EU accession candidate.” European policymakers should continue to speak out on human right violations in Turkey and raise the stakes for Erdoğan’s harsh treatment of critics as the country heads into an election year.