Osman Kavala: a significant anti-democratic arrest
Lea Nocera 6 November 2017

A little less than a year and a half after the attempted coup d’état, the political and social situation in Turkey continues to be extremely critical. The vice on the opposition and on civil society, which in spite of everything continues the struggle in defence of democratic rights, becomes tighter every day. The state of emergency allows people to be arrested on the basis of summary charges with pre-trial detentions extended for weeks, if not months, as well as bans on leaving the country. These are measures applied indiscriminately, and, following the wave of forced resignations that has involved every sector in the public administration, include constant attacks on academics and journalists, with provisions taken against key players in Turkey’s civil and intercultural dialogue, among them Osman Kavala, seem all the more disquieting. An entrepreneur, but above all the sponsor of the most interesting and effective political and social initiatives in favour of human rights and against the discrimination of minorities (in particular Armenians and Kurds), he founded the prestigious publishing house İletişim, immediately after the 1980 military coup, together with Murat Belge, a great intellectual and a scholar of Turkish cultural and political processes. Over the years he presided over or held important positions on the boards of directors of many organisations, all well-known for always taking the lead in defending human rights and fostering reconciliation between social partners. These organisations include the Turkish Foundation for History (Tarih Vakfı), the NGO Helsinki Yurttaşlar Derneği, the Turkish Foundation for Social and Economic Studies (TESEV), the Open Society Institute and the House of Culture in Diyarbakır. The building he owns, known as Cezayir, is not just a restaurant, but a place that has always been open for meetings and debates on the Armenian genocide, the Kurdish issue, relations between civil society and the European Union, and, in 2015, it was there that the co-leader of The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, who has been in prison for a year, met with his voters following the party’s surprising success in the general election. Since 2002 Kavala has also been the head of the board of directors of Anadolu Kültür, a non-profit cultural organisation of which he was one of the founders. Its objective was the uniting of civil society, the entrepreneurial and art worlds in order to foster cultural and artistic exchanges between the country’s various regions as well as other countries. It is a continuous and widespread commitment aimed at fostering an open and plural idea of identity and citizenship that includes the country’s cultural identities. Thanks to Anadolu Kültür, over the past few years many activities have been undertaken to encourage dialogue between the Turks and the Armenians, to enhance the artistic and cultural heritage in the south-east of the country, mainly inhabited by Kurds.

Osman Kavala was returning from Gaziantep, a city in southern Anatolia he had visited so as to work on a project to be implemented in cooperation with the Goethe Institut, when he was stopped at Istanbul Airport and imprisoned for thirteen days. Following a court hearing, on November 1st his arrest was confirmed with extremely serious charge

s alleging he had conspired to overthrow the Turkish government and abolish the constitutional order. Basically, Osman Kavala was accused of having played a crucial role in the July 15th, 2016 attempted coup and of being in touch with Fethullah Gülen, the religious leader of the homonymous movement now known as FETÖ, considered an extremely dangerous terrorist organisation that Erdoğan and the government see as the instigator of the failed coup.

The charges brought against Kavala are not based on any real evidence, as has also happened in cases involving the journalists writing for Cumhuriyet or authors such as Ahmet Altan, but came after a defamatory campaign that on the day of his arrest was intensified by the press, including Turkish and English language daily newspapers, television and radio. A week before the hearing, President Erdoğan seized the opportunity of an AKP meeting in the Grand National Assembly to speak of Kavala, describing him as a ‘Turkish Soros’, a person for whom positive opinions tend to hide the truth, while, to quote the Turkish president, he is really a man with clear links to subversive organisations and formerly an instigator and organiser of the Gezi protests, responsibilities for which he must be held accountable. It is certainly not surprising, but very disquieting, to observe how in the charges brought against Osman Kavala, these same allegations were those used for his arrest, in particular his role in the Gezi protest movement in which, according to the authorities, all terrorist organisations were united, ranging from the PKK to FETÖ as well as the Marxist-Leninist Party which also played a leading role in the attempted coup.

In the meantime, both in Turkey and in Europe protests were instantly heard, opposing the entrepreneur’s arrest, among them those expressed by Kati Piri, the European rapporteur on Turkey, the president of The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), as well as an open letter to the president signed by many intellectuals and the Réseau européen d’analyse des sociétés politiques (REASOPO), all demanding his immediate release.

Osman Kavala’s arrest is an extremely negative event in an already serious political and social context, in which the state of emergency, which allows the promulgation of ‘imperative decrees’ that effectively suspend the rule of law and intensify the daily implementation of an authoritarian and repressive situation, has been extended every three months since July 21st, 2015. In the absence of imminent political or significant events, all this is happening while little news arrives from beyond Turkey’s borders. However, a little at a time, the groundwork is being laid in the country, preparing for the 2019 general election which is expected to bring into force the presidential regime approved by the much-debated referendum. Erdoğan has already announced that the government’s work will not stop and will all be aimed at implementing radical reforms that will facilitate amendments to the administrative system. In the meantime, the Turkish president has recently not missed an opportunity to attack the republic’s secular values, defending, for example, the marriage law that authorises muftis to register weddings, a reform that has been greatly criticised by women’s human rights organisations, feminist movements and the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP). According to Erdoğan, such criticism is evidence of the distance between these associations and the CHP and the values and history of Turkish society. It is almost a paradox that Erdoğan’s words were spoken just a few days before the 94th anniversary of the republic founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal.

In the meantime, opposition from within civil society continues tenaciously in spite of the great difficulties and continuous obstruction as well as constant intimidation. Because there is immediately news of other arrests and ongoing detentions, there is no time to rejoice over the release from prison of important and well-known personalities, such as the human rights activists  arrested for allegedly conspiring at a meeting last July, among them the director of Amnesty Turkey, Idil Eser. At the recent court hearing held on October 31st for journalists from the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, among them Ahmet Şık, all arrests were confirmed. The lawyer Taner Kılıç, president of Amnesty Turkey, in prison since last June, was not released. These are arrests, like that of Osman Kavala, that involve important members of the opposition and whose work is done within the framework of democracy and respect for human rights and whose reputations are, however, degraded and sullied, using extremely serious allegations with no foundation whatsoever. As stated by Kavala’s wife Ayşe Buğra, a prominent professor of economic history at the Boğaziçi University, “With this decision to arrest him we have not only lost Osman Kavala’s freedom, but our hopes for democracy, peace and the rule of law have also been weakened.”

Credit: Gianluca Costantini