Erdogan rival visits imprisoned rights leader for first time

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Turkey’s opposition chief paid his first visit Friday to a civil society leader who was jailed for life after coming under repeated attack from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Secular leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s visit to philanthropist Osman Kavala comes with politicians setting their sights on March municipal elections in which control of Istanbul and Ankara will be in play.

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Kilicdaroglu said he came to Kavala’s Istanbul area prison “to make injustice more visible.”

“No one should be judged for their thoughts,” Turkish media quoted Kilicdaroglu as saying outside Kavala’s jail.

Turkey’s refusal to abide by European Court of Human Rights rulings to immediately release Kavala have torn at Ankara’s relations with Western allies.

The Council of Europe has launched infringement proceeding against Turkey over its treatment of Kavala that could potentially see Ankara expelled from the continent’s leading human rights organization.

Critics say it also highlights the deterioration of Turkey’s rights record in the second decade of Erdogan’s dominant rule.

Turkey’s supreme court last month upheld Kavala’s conviction and life imprisonment on the charge of attempting to overthrow Erdogan’s government during large-scale protests in 2013.

The 66-year-old does not have the possibility to appeal.

Kavala faced alternating charges that have ranged from espionage and financing the 2013 protests to taking part in a failed 2016 coup against Erdogan.

He was detained six years ago and acquitted in February 2020 of involvement in the 2013 protests or the 2016 coup.

But he was immediately detained and charged with espionage. The court then brought new charges that included ones he had already been cleared of in the first trial.

Kilicdaroglu’s decision to visit Kavala comes four months after the secular opposition leader lost a bitterly fought runoff election to Erdogan.

He had pledged to release “political prisoners” such as Kavala immediately after taking office.

“There is no democracy in this country, I am aware of that. I know very well that there is no democracy. I know you have an authoritarian government,” Kilicdaroglu said Friday.

His comments suggest that Erdogan’s secular rivals intend to make human rights issues a focus of their March election campaigns.

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