“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.”