Turkey's Kavala denies charges as coup-related trial begins

ISTANBUL, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Prominent Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala, already in jail for more than three years without being convicted, denied charges against him on Friday as an Istanbul court opened a new trial in which he is accused of involvement in an attempted coup in 2016.

Ankara’s Western allies have raised concerns about Kavala’s detention and the European Court of Human Rights has said it only serves to silence him. After President Tayyip Erdogan last month promised judicial reforms, rights activists and opposition politicians redoubled calls for his release.

Immediately after he was acquitted in February of charges related to nationwide Gezi Park protests in 2013, Kavala was newly arrested on charges related to the failed coup in 2016.

“None of the charges in this indictment are based on any facts, evidence or objective evaluation of a concrete criminal act,” Kavala told the court by video link from prison.

The allegations “are in stark contrast to my world view, ethical values and the goals of the projects carried out by the civil society organizations under my supervision,” he said.

Critics say the detention points to political pressure on Turkey’s judiciary, which they say has been bent to punish thousands of the government’s perceived opponents in the wake of the 2016 failed coup.

While Erdogan’s reform pledges prompted speculation that Kavala and others may be released, the president said last month he could never defend the philanthropist and called him the sponsor of the 2013 protests - despite courts clearing him of that accusation.

In the new indictment, Kavala is accused of collaborating with Henri Barkey, a prominent Turkey scholar in the United States. The indictment accuses Barkey of links to the network of U.S.-based Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, which Ankara accuses of orchestrating the coup.

Gulen denies involvement in the coup attempt.

Kavala and Barkey are charged with attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, for which a conviction carries a life sentence without parole, and with espionage, which could lead to up to 20 years in jail.

Barkey has rejected the charges as a “complete fabrication”.

The indictment says Kavala and Barkey spoke by phone on Oct. 8, 2016, nearly three months after the failed July 15 coup. It says that many times between 2013 and 2016, signals on Barkey and Kavala’s phones came from the same area and that they met at an Istanbul restaurant on July 18, 2016.

Barkey told Reuters in October in an emailed response that the two had run into each other at the restaurant and chatted briefly. He added that their phones could easily have been in the same district of a crowded city at other times without them meeting.

The ECHR ruled last year that Kavala should be released since the evidence did not back up the charges. This month, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers also called for his release.

In October, the Turkish court lifted Kavala’s arrest warrant related to the constitutional order charge but kept him jailed due to the espionage charge.

Ahead of Friday’s hearing, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other groups called for Kavala’s release.

“Implement the binding European Court of Human Rights decision. Drop the baseless charges against him,” Milena Buyum, Amnesty’s Turkey campaigner, said on Twitter. (Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Giles Elgood)