(NEW YORK)– PEN America on Tuesday condemned trumped-up charges against documentary filmmaker Mine Özerden, film producer Çiğdem Mater, and philanthropist Osman Kavala, all of whom have recently received criminal sentences in Turkey. PEN America called on the Turkish government to vacate their sentences and immediately release them. PEN America expressed solidarity with planned protests in support of those detained and convicted.

On April 25, an Istanbul court sentenced Kavala to life in prison without parole for his involvement in the 2013 Gezi Park protests, on charges of leading an effort to “overthrow the Turkish government by force.” The court also sentenced seven defendants to 18 years in prison, including Özerden and Mater, for allegedly assisting these efforts to topple the government.

“These verdicts are the result of a years-long campaign of political persecution that Erdogan’s government has waged against his perceived enemies. From the very beginning, officials have made it clear that their goal in this case has been political repression, not justice,” said Julie Trebault, Director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America.

“The victims of this case are not only those who have been unjustly convicted and sentenced, but Turkish society at large, which is being robbed of some of their most dedicated artists, public intellectuals, and civic leaders,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America. “Our hearts go out to Özerden, Mater, Kavala, and all others bearing the weight of this injustice–as well as to their families, friends, and colleagues. We stand with them resolutely and we fervently support and echo those who will gather tomorrow in calling for their immediate release.”

Çiğdem Mater is a Turkish film producer and journalist, best known for her involvement in arthouse titles like the 2013 drama “Sivas.” She had returned to Turkey from Germany for the hearing, and was arrested on Monday following the conclusion of the trial and sent to Istanbul’s Bakirkoy women’s prison following the announcement of the verdict. The sentencing against Mater specifically includes an accusation that she raised funds for a documentary about the Gezi Park demonstrations, which was never made. Mine Özerden is a documentary filmmaker who has also been arrested for her role in the protests and is being held at the same prison. Osman Kavala is a Turkish businessman, publisher, and philanthropist who led numerous civil society projects focused on inter-cultural understanding prior to his detention in 2017. Despite numerous calls for his release, including a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in December 2019 and a previous acquittal by a Turkish court, he has remained behind bars since then.

A group of prominent activists and writers living in exile, including Kurdish artist and author Zehra Dogan and Turkish journalists Can Dundar and Deniz Yucel, will gather in Berlin on Wednesday to protest the Gezi trials and demand the release of the detained artists and activists.

The Gezi Park protests were a wave of leaderless, largely peaceful protests that took place in Istanbul in May 2013, prompted by the construction of a mall in a local park and ultimately snowballing into mass anti-government demonstrations of more than 3 million people. The Gezi case is considered one of the “most notorious and deliberately convoluted political prosecutions” pursued by Erdoğan’s government for its use of ludicrous charges, flawed trials, and lack of due process.

In 2021, PEN America released the report Cracking Down on Creative Voices: Turkey’s Silencing of Writers, Intellectuals, and Artists Five Years after the Failed Coup, which concluded that the “repressive climate” fostered under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan “has left writers and others in Turkey’s cultural sector feeling embattled and targeted, unsure of what they can say or write without falling into their government’s crosshairs.” According to PEN America’s 2021 Freedom to Write Index, Turkey was the fifth-worst jailer of writers and public intellectuals last year: more than 18 writers were detained, and writers–even those in exile–face other threats such as physical attacks and protracted legal trials and charges in absentia.

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. ARC’s Safety Guide for Artists shares strategies on how to prepare for and navigate risk, based on interviews with persecuted artists, including Turkish author Aslı Erdoğan. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, STrimel@PEN.org, 201-247-5057