“With the arrest ruling we have not only lost Osman Kavala’s freedom, but at the same time our hopes in democracy, peace and the rule of law.”
These were the words with which Professor Ayse Bugra, a prominent Turkish scholar, reacted to the news of the arrest of her husband, well-known businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala. Last week—and just two weeks after his detention at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport on October 19—an Istanbul court ordered the imprisonment of Kavala on charges of terrorism and coup plotting. In the months before his arrest, pro-government media had launched an intense smear campaign against the slender businessman, labeling him an “agent” who wants to “destabilize the country.” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, speaking at a group meeting of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) following Kavala’s initial detention, blasted the human-rights defender as someone who is “behind money transfers to certain places” and, in a reference to the liberal US philanthropist, as a “Soros of Turkey.” Loyalist media outlets have continued their attacks on Kavala.
This was all part of a ridiculous “perception campaign,” Bugra wrote in her letter, which was widely published in the opposition press. It is an ominous sign that the prosecution thinks otherwise. According to Anadolu, the state news agency, Kavala stands accused of attempting to overthrow the Turkish government and the constitutional order. If convicted, he faces a life sentence without parole. The Istanbul chief public prosecutor’s office also accuses Kavala of being in league with the “organizers” of the 2013 Gezi Park uprising, recasting that peaceful popular protest as an act of terrorism.
Osman Kavala is a longtime supporter of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation and the recognition of the Armenian genocide in Turkey. In cooperation with the Turkish government, his foundation, Anadolu Kültür, helped to save and restore the cultural heritage of religious minorities, which had been left to fall into ruin all over the country. Kavala was also involved in promoting women’s rights, children’s rights, and the rights of Turkey’s LGBTQ community. He organized aid for refugees and supported artists and cultural initiatives. In 2016, Anadolu Kültür launched books and games in Turkish and Arabic to promote Syrian heritage and bilingual education of Syrian refugee children living in Turkey.
“This is very worrying, and yet another example that Turkish courts take at face value allegations from prosecutors that don’t seem to have any basis in facts,” said Ben Ward, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. “It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this court decision is politically motivated.”
Sezgin Tanrıkulu, a former human-rights lawyer who is now an MP representing the main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), called Kavala’s arrest an “intimidation campaign,” saying, “There is no legal basis to these charges whatsoever. He is being turned into a political hostage.”
Kavala’s case has sent shock waves through Turkey’s civil society. The bogus charges against him are a signal to all those who are involved in organizations supporting human rights, peace, and cultural diversity: You could be next.
His arrest comes only days after the release on bail of 10 human-rights activists who had been held in pretrial detention, among them the Amnesty International Turkey director Idil Eser. However, their trial will go forward, and like Kavala they are being prosecuted for aiding armed terrorist organizations. And just as they did with Kavala, the pro-government media launched an aggressive smear campaign against the “Istanbul 10,” labeling them as “foreign agents,” “coup plotters,” and “terrorism supporters” who were trying to “spread chaos” in Turkey. Taner Kiliç, a lawyer and chair of Amnesty Turkey, remains in prison on terrorism charges, despite the lack of evidence against him.
Many observers worry that the crackdown on Turkish civil society will only get worse. Kavala and the Istanbul 10 are only the latest victims in what has been described as a witch hunt following the failed military coup of July 15, 2016. Almost 150,000 people have since been dismissed from state jobs, and more than 60,000 are in jail on terrorism charges, including military personnel and police officers but also large numbers of journalists, academics, and lawyers. Thousands of media outlets, associations, foundations, and educational institutions have been summarily shut down.
The AKP government accuses Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic cleric who lives in the United States, of organizing the coup attempt. On July 20 last year, President Erdoğan declared a state of emergency, enabling him and the AKP cabinet to bypass Parliament and rule by decree. The crackdown against possible putschists has long since transformed into an all-out campaign against not only alleged Gülen sympathizers but also leftists, Kurds, and anyone critical of the government.
Kavala’s arrest marks a clear escalation. “Osman Kavala is a very symbolic figure of Turkey’s civil society,” said political scientist Cengiz Aktar. “His arrest is a warning to everyone. It signals that the period of a liberal Turkey is over.” That period, he explained, started with the EU accession talks and subsequent legal reforms and greater freedoms. Just like Ayse Bugra, Aktar said he has lost hope for that liberalization to be reignited anytime soon.
“Kavala was active in all fields of civil society,” Aktar said. “Over the last 15 years he broke all of the taboos upon which the Turkish Republic was built. His arrest will also have serious implications for Turkey’s official memory policies.”
In 2002, Kavala’s foundation Anadolu Kültür opened the Diyarbakir Arts Center in that predominantly Kurdish metropolis in the country’s southeast to promote local artists and to break with the longstanding oppression of Kurdish culture in Turkey. Kavala was also an active supporter of peace talks between the Turkish government and the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) before they broke down in the summer of 2015.
Despite Kavala’s efforts to promote peace, the government and pro-government media are accusing him of conspiring with the PKK and other Kurdish factions against the Turkish state. The loyalist daily Yeni Safak calls him a “key name” in “funding terror,” and the newspaper Sabah triumphantly writes that “pictures of [Abdullah] Öcalan” were found on his phone. The daily duly omits the fact that it was the AKP government that began peace talks with the jailed PKK leader in 2013.
Human-rights groups and legal experts are outraged about the accusations against Kavala. Human Rights Watch called the philanthropist’s imprisonment “an example of the politicized and arbitrary nature of Turkey’s justice system.” The US State Department described Kavala’s initial detention as another sign of a “very alarming trend” of the crackdown on civil-society leaders, academics, journalists, and human-rights defenders. European Parliament Rapporteur Kati Piri also did not mince her words following the court decision last Wednesday. “Outrageous charges against #OsmanKavala. He’s a well respected man. But today’s Turkey is ruled by crazy conspiracy theories,” Piri tweeted on November 1.
HRW’s Ben Ward said that it was time for Turkey’s allies to speak up against the deterioration of human rights. “Kavala’s arrest is further evidence that there is a campaign against civil society in Turkey,” he said. “And it underscores the vital importance of Turkey’s international partners to press Turkey to reverse course.” But all attempts at that, too, are being used by the president’s spin doctors to fan the flames of hostility: International outrage over Kavala’s arrest is being used by government supporters to paint the businessman as a “pawn of the West.”
The crackdown shows no sign of abating. Hundreds of people have left the country. Emergency rule has all but eradicated peaceful political protest. Yet activists, politicians, journalists, academics, and brave citizens refuse to be silent.
For Cengiz Aktar, the government’s repression has done irreversible damage. “So many people have left. Those that have not are too scared to talk,” he said. “This is the worst thing that can happen to a country. It is the annihilation of civil society.”