The Council of Europe said Friday it will launch disciplinary action against Turkey for refusing to free prominent activist and philanthropist Osman Kavala, triggering a procedure used only once before in the organisation's history.
The pan-European rights body's committee of ministers agreed the move over Turkey's repeated refusal to comply with a 2019 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights to release Kavala from prison, it said.
It comes as concern grows over rights abuses in Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish leader has repeatedly in speeches personally targeted Kavala, who has now been in jail for over four years without ever being convicted of a crime.
"By failing to ensure the applicant's immediate release, the committee considers that Turkey is refusing to abide by the court's final judgement in this case," the COE said.
The Turkish foreign ministry had urged the COE on Thursday not to begin the action "out of respect for the ongoing judicial process," warning that the procedure would be "interference" in its domestic affairs.
Amnesty International's Europe Director Nils Muiznieks welcomed the message to Turkey over the case as "crystal clear".
"Turkey's failure to ensure the immediate release of Osman Kavala and end his politically motivated prosecution is an unacceptable breach of the country's human rights obligations," he said.
This is only the second time the COE has used its so-called infringement proceedings against one of its 47 member states, the first occasion being a 2017 action against Azerbaijan over its refusal to release dissident Ilgar Mammadov.
Mammadov was then released from jail in August 2018 and the proceedings ultimately were closed.
The procedure was created in 2010 to ensure full compliance with ECHR rulings, which are legally binding for member states and not advisory.
Turkey, a member of the COE since 1950, is like all member states obliged to abide by the European Convention on Human Rights, which the ECHR oversees.
The decision by the committee of ministers, which required a two-thirds majority, puts Turkey under formal notice that its failure to release Kavala will be referred back to the ECHR.
The ECHR will then decide whether Turkey's non-implementation of its ruling is a further violation of the rights convention.
Turkey has a deadline to respond by January 19, after which the committee would refer the case back to the ECHR at its next meeting on February 2. The next hearing in Kavala's case in Istanbul is scheduled for January 17.
The COE's statute allows for the suspension of a member state's voting rights at the committee of ministers, or even expulsion as an ultimate sanction. The process, however, is still far from reaching this stage and the mechanism exists to resolve such disputes.
The jailing of Kavala has become one of the most emblematic cases in Turkey under Erdogan, who has dominated the country for the last two decades but is now battling a severe economic crisis.
The 64-year-old Paris-born businessman helped finance civil society projects and was also particularly engaged in seeking to reconcile Turkey and its neighbour Armenia with whom Ankara has no diplomatic relations.
Erdogan has repeatedly accused Kavala of being the agent in Turkey of billionaire financier and pro-democracy campaigner George Soros and being the key player in 2013 protests over the redevelopment of an Istanbul park which rattled the Turkish strongman.
But Kavala has rejected Erdogan's "defamatory" accusations as "an attack on human dignity."
Turkey's refusal to release Kavala has also fuelled tensions with the West.
In October, 10 embassies -- including France, Germany and the United States -- said in a highly unusual declaration that his continued detention "cast a shadow" over Turkey's democracy and judicial system.
Erdogan then threatened to expel the 10 Western ambassadors although he later stepped back from this.
Kavala is charged with financing 2013 anti-government protests and playing a role in a 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan. If convicted, he could face a life term without the possibility of parole.