WHEN TURKEY’S Recep Tayyip Erdogan rose to power in the early 2000s, he cast himself as the leader of a model Muslim democracy whose top priority was membership in the European Union. Slowly but relentlessly, he has evolved into a swaggering strongman whose role models are Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Thousands of political prisoners rot in his jails. None illustrates this contemptible transformation more vividly than Osman Kavala, who last week was charged with espionage and attempting to overthrow the government.

Mr. Kavala, 63, is a mild-mannered businessman, philanthropist and cultural activist known for such initiatives as promoting reconciliation between Turks and Armenians. He was never a politician or an opposition leader, but he exemplified the liberal, secular side of Turkey that Mr. Erdogan despises. Nearly three years ago, he was abruptly jailed and subjected to a vicious defamation campaign in pro-government media; Mr. Erdogan referred to him as a “local collaborator” of “the famous Hungarian Jew” George Soros, the subject of countless conspiracy theories in Turkey and elsewhere.

Mr. Kavala was eventually charged with organizing anti-government protests that erupted in Istanbul in 2013. The European Court of Human Rights, which Turkey is bound by, found there was no case against him and ordered his release last December. Two months later, a Turkish court acquitted him. But Mr. Kavala was rearrested before he could leave jail, even as Mr. Erdogan complained about the verdict.

Now Mr. Kavala has been indicted on the basis of a lurid and patently ludicrous allegation: that he collaborated with an American college professor, Henri Barkey, in coordinating the July 2016 coup attempt against Mr. Erdogan. Mr. Barkey, a former State Department official who is no more a plausible terrorist revolutionary than Mr. Kavala, happened to convene an academic conference at a hotel near Istanbul the weekend the coup attempt took place. Mr. Kavala did not participate, and the only contact between the two men took place in passing at a restaurant. Yet now they are charged with masterminding the bloody uprising by elements of the Turkish military; a warrant has been issued for the arrest of Mr. Barkey, a professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

What’s disturbing about this case is not only the continued persecution of a prominent Turkish intellectual, along with a distinguished American academic, but also the deployment of a rationale that even Mr. Putin — who recently accused a leading opponent of poisoning himself — might find kooky. Mr. Erdogan is demonstrating that he can imprison anyone for any reason — including self-evident nonsense.

You’d think the State Department, which often boasts of its advocacy on behalf of U.S. citizens, would apply some pressure on behalf of Mr. Barkey and Mr.  Kavala. Apart from a couple of statements by low-ranking officials, it hasn’t. But then, threatening political opponents on the basis of crackpot criminal allegations is becoming a favorite tactic of President Trump, too.

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