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10 embassies call for Turkey to release imprisoned civil society leader Osman Kavala

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

This week a Turkish civil society leader who's been imprisoned for four years became the center of a brewing diplomatic crisis between NATO allies. Ten embassies, including the U.S., have called for Turkey to release 64-year-old Osman Kavala. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded with a threat to expel those countries' ambassadors. He's since stepped back from those remarks. As President Biden prepares to meet Erdogan at the G20 summit, Durrie Bouscaren reports this case represents a gaping divide between Turkey and the West.

DURRIE BOUSCAREN, BYLINE: Istanbul artist Asli Cavusoglu remembers her friend Osman Kavala as the kind of person who would drink bad tea to avoid offending a host.

ASLI CAVUSOGLU: I mean, he's, like, the most generous listener.

BOUSCAREN: In 2015 they traveled together in Armenia as Kavala worked on a project to get a UNESCO listing for the archaeological site of Ani, a 10th century Armenian city in what is now northeastern Turkey. Kavala believed in a Turkey that embraced its diversity as well as historic enemies, Cavusoglu says - a life philosophy that drove the bulk of his civil society work.

CAVUSOGLU: So he was advocating, like, never, ever giving up the dialogue.

BOUSCAREN: In Istanbul, he sat on the board of the Turkish branch of the Open Society Foundation, a pro-democracy group created by Hungarian American billionaire George Soros. But this work ultimately put him in the government's crosshairs. Kavala was imprisoned in 2017, accused of conspiring with an American professor and the CIA to spy on the Turkish government, of organizing protests in 2013 and helping plan a bloody coup attempt three years later which left 250 people dead. Kavala has denied these charges. His attorney, Deniz Tolga Aytore, calls them a fantasy cooked up by the prosecutors.

DENIZ TOLGA AYTORE: (Through interpreter) We've asked for the same thing all along - concrete evidence to prove these crimes were perpetrated. They were never able to put this in front of us.

BOUSCAREN: For four years, Kavala has been in this limbo, acquitted by one court, charged again by another.

AYTORE: (Through interpreter) What happens in the hearings is we ask for the evidence. The court cannot present the evidence, so they postpone the hearings. Or they decide there's a lack of jurisdiction and send it to another court.

BOUSCAREN: In 2019 the European Court of Human Rights ordered Turkey to release Kavala. But Turkish authorities have refused to comply, risking suspension in the Council of Europe. At a rally Saturday, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed the criticism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: Kavala, Kavala, Kavala, Kavala.

BOUSCAREN: Erdogan was furious when 10 foreign embassies, including the U.S., called for Kavala's release in a joint statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) What kind of shamelessness is this? What do you think this is? This is Turkey. This is not a tribal country as you think. This is Turkey, glorious Turkey.

BOUSCAREN: Erdogan said he would declare the 10 ambassadors persona non grata, effectively kicking them out of the country. He's since walked back these remarks after several embassies promised to follow a section of the Vienna Convention that prevents diplomats from interfering in a host country's domestic affairs. Yusuf Erim, analyst and editor at large for TRT, Turkey's public broadcaster, says he agrees with Erdogan that foreign envoys should not make public comments about ongoing criminal cases.

YUSUF ERIM: The crimes that have allegedly been committed have been committed on Turkish soil. He's a Turkish citizen. So they have no jurisdiction or no expertise to be able to comment on this, and this is strictly a domestic affair.

BOUSCAREN: Kavala's next hearing is scheduled for November 26, an appointment he says he will refuse to attend because he believes a fair trial is no longer possible. For NPR News, I'm Durrie Bouscaren in Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIM SONG, "COLD WATER MUSIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.