Osman Kavala is a philanthropist who tried to reconcile Turkey with its arch-nemesis Armenia before his arrest in 2017

Istanbul (AFP) - A Turkish court on Monday sentenced leading activist Osman Kavala to life in prison on controversial charges of trying to topple the government that had already seen him jailed without a conviction for more than four years.

The panel of three judges also jailed seven other defendants for 18 years each on the charge of aiding the attempt to overthrow then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government during large-scale protests in 2013.

The ruling drew swift condemnation from some of Turkey’s main allies, as well rights campaigners – some of whom emerged from the packed Istanbul courtroom in tears.

Washington said it was “deeply troubled” by the “unjust” conviction.

“The United States is deeply troubled and disappointed by the court’s decision,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

Germany said the 64-year-old intellectual and campaigner must be “freed immediately”, while two leading European parliamentarians who coordinate ties with Ankara said the “regrettable” ruling showed there was “little to no EU perspective for the current Turkey”.

The bloc’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, condemned the sentence for ignoring orders for Kavala’s release from the European Court of Human Rights.

“Today, we have witnessed a travesty of justice of spectacular proportions,” said Amnesty International’s Europe director Nils Muiznieks.

- ‘Judicial assassination’ -

The Paris-born philanthropist told the court by video link from his high-security prison near Istanbul that he viewed the entire process as a “judicial assassination”.

“These are conspiracy theories drafted on political and ideological grounds,” Kavala told the court moments before the sentence.

Osman Kavala's supporters broke out in tears after the sentence, which one rights campaigner called 'the worst possible' outcome

The marathon hearing has been gnawing on Turkey’s strategic but tempestuous ties with its main Western allies since Kavala’s unexpected arrest in October 2017.

Kavala was then best known as a soft-spoken businessman who was spending part of his wealth to promote culture and projects aimed at reconciling Turkey and its arch-nemesis Armenia.

But Erdogan portrayed him as a leftist agent of the Hungarian-born US billionaire George Soros and accused him of using foreign money to try and overthrow the state.

“We can never be together with people like Kavala,” Erdogan declared in 2020.

- Alternating charges -

Kavala was one of tens of thousands of Turks who were either jailed or fired from their jobs in purges that followed a bloody coup attempt against Erdogan when he was already president in 2016.

But the seemingly arbitrary nature of the alternating charges filed against Kavala made him a symbol for rights groups – as well as Western governments – of Erdogan’s increasing authoritarian streak in the second decade of his rule.

Kavala was first charged with funding the wave of 2013 protests that some analysts view as the genesis of Erdogan’s more authoritarian posture in the latter half of his 20-year rule.

His supporters view Osman Kavala as an innocent victim of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's sweeping crackdown on dissent

A court acquitted and released him in February 2020 – only for the police to arrest him before he had a chance to return home to his wife.

Another court then accused him of being involved in the failed 2016 putsch.

Kavala ultimately ended up facing both sets of charges, but Monday’s ruling only covered the case stemming from the 2013 unrest.

His treatment has prompted the Council of Europe to launch rare disciplinary proceedings that could ultimately see Turkey’s membership suspended in the continent’s main human rights grouping.

- Muted by Ukraine war -

Turkey’s increasingly popular opposition leaders seized on the verdict one year ahead of a general election that could severely test Erdogan’s political survival skills.

Erdogan’s likely chief election rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the secular CHP party, called the 2013 protests “a national movement dedicated to solidarity, peace, brotherhood and democracy”.

Istanbul’s politically ambitious opposition mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, said the verdict “hurt the consciousness of millions of people”.

Yet the case’s importance to Turkey’s broader diplomatic standing has been somewhat muted by Russia’s two-month war in Ukraine.

Erdogan has been leveraging his relatively good ties with both Moscow and Kyiv to try and mediate an end to the conflict.

His efforts have already brought about a marked improvement in Ankara’s relations with Washington that could soon see Turkey supplied with US military jets.

Monday’s hearing was held in Istanbul at the same time as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres met Erdogan in Ankara before travelling to Moscow and Kyiv later in the week.

“The secretary-general expressed his support for Turkey’s ongoing diplomatic efforts in relation to the war in Ukraine,” Guterres’s office said.