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Christian group decries Turkey’s life sentence for human rights advocate

Turkey
Reuters/Murad Sezer

A U.S.-based Christian group has criticized Turkey's sentencing of human rights activist Osman Kavala to life imprisonment on charges of purportedly “attempting to overthrow the government.”

Kavala, a 64-year-old philanthropist and human rights advocate, has called for the protection of non-Muslim cultural sites, the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, and the protection of religious minorities, International Christian Concern said in a statement Tuesday.

He was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole on Monday after he was convicted of trying to overthrow the government by financing protests in a case that was seen by Western powers as being politically motivated, Reuters reported, adding that seven others got 18 years for aiding an attempt to overthrow the government.

The U.S. State Department called the sentencing deeply troubling and disappointing.

His sentence is being seen as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s defiance of warnings issued by Western countries last year.

“We again call on Turkey to release Osman Kavala, in keeping with European Court of Human Rights rulings, as well as to free all others arbitrarily incarcerated,“ it said in a statement. “We remain gravely concerned by the continued judicial harassment of civil society, media, political and business leaders in Turkey, including through prolonged pretrial detention, overly broad claims of support for terrorism, and criminal insult cases.”

Authorities first detained Kavala in October 2017, accusing him of involvement in the 2013 Gezi Park protests. In 2019, the European Court of Human Rights ruled for Kavala’s release. He was acquitted in 2020 of those charges, but the ruling was later overturned and combined with other charges in the 2016 coup attempt.

And now, Kavala’s sentencing comes one day after the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, which was committed in the early 1900s by Turkish authorities who remain in aggressive denial regarding these events, International Christian Concern noted.

“Osman Kavala has endured multiple hardships because of his human rights activism which only seeks the betterment of Turkey’s religious minorities,” ICC’s President Jeff King said. 

“His sentencing sends a warning to anyone who wishes to raise awareness about the human rights challenges experienced in Turkey. The timing of this announcement sends a particularly dire warning to the survivors of the Armenian genocide, who only just yesterday experienced multiple pressures from the authorities for commemorating the event,” King added.

Kavala continually advocated for more dialogue surrounding the Armenian Genocide, an Ottoman-era genocide that killed and displaced an estimated 2 million Armenian Christians, ICC said. In 2007, following the murder of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink by a Turkish nationalist, Kavala pushed for greater reconciliation between Turks and Armenian Christians.

Last April, when President Joe Biden referred to the mass atrocity perpetuated by Ottoman-era Turkish authorities against Armenian Christians as a genocide, ICC had noted that designation was significant because the “Turkish government has failed to take responsibility and has actively denied their role in this, allowing them to pursue genocidal policies against Armenians such as in Nagorno-Karabakh,” a conflict that started in the 1980s when the Soviet Union began to fall apart.

The Nagorno-Karabakh region, a landlocked region in the South Caucasus, is recognized internationally as part of Muslim-majority Azerbaijan even though it has a majority Armenian population and is controlled by ethnic Armenians. Turkey supported Azerbaijan’s aggressions against Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, ICC said at the time.

“Azerbaijani troops alongside Turkish-paid Syrian mercenaries invaded the region and took control after a Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement in December,” ICC added. “Evidence of violence against Armenian civilians and destruction of religious sites during this conflict suggests some religious and ethnic hatred toward Armenian Christians still held by many, reminiscent of the genocide over a century ago.”

ICC’s Advocacy Director Matias Perttula explained that “Armenian Christians continue to suffer because of the systematic Ottoman campaign of 1915, and the United States owes it to the Armenian community to stand with them in solidarity by recognizing their suffering.”

“As heirs to the oldest Christian nation, Armenians are an integral part of the global community of Christians and ought to enjoy freedom from persecution,” Perttula added.

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