Via Financial Times

A Turkish court has refused to release a leading civil society activist jailed for more than two years, defying a judgment from Europe’s top human rights court that his lengthy detention violated his rights and was aimed at stifling political dissent.

Osman Kavala, a businessman and philanthropist, and 15 other people are accused of attempting to topple the government by organising mass protests to save an Istanbul park in 2013. They all face life in prison if found guilty, but Mr Kavala is the only defendant in custody during the trial.

The European Court of Human Rights this month ordered Turkey to free Mr Kavala immediately, finding a lack of evidence of criminal activity. It said his prolonged incarceration had deprived him of his right to liberty and served “an ulterior purpose . . . to silence” human rights defenders.

The Strasbourg-based court requires countries belonging to Europe’s convention on human rights to comply with its rulings.

The senior judge in the trial said he would await a response from the Turkish justice ministry on whether the European court’s decision was in fact binding. He cited the severity of the alleged crime and “strong evidence” in the case to keep Mr Kavala, 62, behind bars. The next hearing is set for January 28.

In a statement released by his lawyers, Mr Kavala said: “The court’s decision to continue my detention despite the ECHR’s ruling for my immediate release . . . greatly surprised me. I believe this decision, which harms the judiciary’s reputation, must be remedied as soon as possible.”

Two former police officers who testified against the defendants said they did not see Mr Kavala or the other defendants, who include lawyers, a film-maker and a city planner, involved in violence and had no first-hand knowledge they organised the protest. The defendants deny the accusations against them, of an attempt to do away with or obstruct the Turkish government. They argue the demonstrations were too large and spontaneous for them to start or stop.

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Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Mr Kavala, who has funded arts projects and cultural exchanges, of bankrolling the protests with support from American billionaire George Soros.

The protests were sparked by plans to replace the central Gezi Park with a shopping mall but spiralled into the largest anti-government demonstrations in a generation. At least eight people were killed in the ensuing police crackdown.

“There is no evidence of the crimes attributed to Osman Kavala or the 15 other individuals in this case,” said Milena Buyum, Amnesty International’s senior campaigner on Turkey. “Where there is no evidence of the crimes that are being alleged, you have to conclude it is politically motivated. This trial is a shambles.”