From Jail to the Nobel Peace Prize, the Campaign for the Turkish Philanthropist Kavala
Lea Nocera 31 January 2019

The international campaign to support Osman Kavala’s candidature for the Nobel Peace Prize has developed over an extremely brief period of time. Osman Kavala, a philanthropic entrepreneur, has played a key role in Turkey in recent decades in all initiatives promoting peace and the rights of minorities and in addressing the many rifts that still divide Turkish society. Osman Kavala is currently in prison.

For almost a year and a half he has been held on remand, mostly in isolated detention. He has not been granted a single court hearing. Arrested in October 2017, his detention took not only him but also many other people by surprise, and reflects perfectly the kind of repressive policies the Turkish government has been applying to presumed dissidents since the failed coup of 2016. Hundreds of academics, journalists and human rights activists have been arrested and detained with trials often involving lengthy judicial procedures lasting months.

The standard accusation is “material support for a terrorist organisation”, typically either the PKK or the Fethullah Gülen movement, which are both considered existential threats by the Turkish government. Sometimes those held in detention are accused of denigrating the Turkish nation or other state institutions. Following the failed coup d’état and the declaration of a state of emergency—which was only withdrawn once the country transitioned to the new executive presidential system in 2018—charges of terrorism have been used to single out or attack the opposition. The prime targets have been members of Turkey’s fragile corpus of (mostly secular and democratic left) civil society organisations, newspapers and publishers, student organisations and trade unions.

Osman Kavala’s detention is emblematic of these trends. Kavala’s commitment to creating forums for open and frank discussion, reflection and action extends back over forty years, to the period following the military coup of 12 September 1980. At this time, an aggressive conservative–nationalist state authoritarianism—sponsored by the Turkish military—emerged that smothered independent society in the name of “order” and “national stability”.

Kavala was then deeply involved in the evolution of the Iletişim publishing house, founded as a means to disseminate knowledge and encourage the democratisation process. Since then—especially from the late 1990s onward, as Turkish civil society became increasingly dynamic, emboldened and diffuse—Osman Kavala has supported many initiatives and projects, in particular those that promote reconciliation with the Kurdish and Armenian minorities in Turkey. In 2002 he founded Anadolu Kültür, a foundation that has always worked to promote cultural diversity, pluralism and the rights of minorities through a series of cultural activities. Anadolu Kültür has the merit of also working beyond Istanbul and considers the south-eastern region where there is a Kurdish majority its priority area of intervention.

Under the rubric of the Diyarbakır Arts Centre (Diyarbakır Sanat Merkezi), many projects have launched to celebrate and champion the cultural life of the city, which is considered the capital of the Kurdish region, as well as cultural exchanges with artists from other parts of Turkey and even cities in Europe and beyond. At the same time, there have also been numerous initiatives organised to support reconciliation with the Armenians, ranging from the reconstruction of remembrance, beginning with oral history projects for adolescents, to fostering the most original forms of art.

Over the years, these projects have become quite diversified, adapting to change and to events, but without ever losing sight of the objective of creating an inclusive society capable of addressing the traumas of the past and overcoming the fatal effect of excessive state-sponsored nationalism. This diversification has included photographic workshops organised with Kurdish children affected by the earthquake in Van, bilingual books for Syrian refugee children in Turkey and the founding of a Turkish–Armenian symphonic orchestra. These projects have also multiplied in other Anatolian cities, while in Istanbul a not-for-profit exhibition space called Depo (which has continuously supported independent and committed artistic research) was opened.

What has emerged, in summary, is an immense and articulated ensemble of local and national initiatives with significant transnational linkages, involving many hundreds of people. This has effectively contributed to the production of different (alternative, even subaltern) narratives of Turkish society, starting with a re-evaluation of the grounds of “official” practices of historical remembrance while foregrounding those elements of the national story that have hitherto struggled to find a place in the public sphere. As a collection, then, these projects stand opposed to the rigid, monolithic vision of the Turkish nation that has nowadays achieved a kind of hegemonic (in the Gramscian sense) status, according to which anyone seeking change or advocating a line that differs from the governing order is accused of being a traitor.

In addition to playing a leading role in all this grassroots civil-society activity, Osman Kavala is also a member of many other organisations, many of which have transnational reach, including the Open Society Foundation, the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), the Turkish History Foundation, the Diyarbakır Institute of Social and Political Research and the Turkish Foundation of Cinema & Audiovisual Culture (TURSAK). It is also because of the this that he has been blacklisted as the “national Soros” by Turkey’s President Erdoğan and pilloried by the pro-government press.

The latter continue to rehearse false allegations that he was the brains behind the Gezi protests, the political earthquake that in 2013 challenged the legitimacy of the AKP government and had long-term effects on the mobilisation of civil society in Turkey. The Gezi equation—according to which many of civil society’s organisations and associations with Osman Kavala on the front lines, tried to overthrow the government by way of a “parallel structure”, just as the Gulen movement is accused of in the 2016 attempted coup—led to many charges and arrests, among them many human rights activists including the president and director of Amnesty International in Turkey.

Osman Kavala’s protracted incarceration is a worrying reminder that many of Turkish society’s most important figures have paid a steep price for their public commitment to democracy, an open and plural society, and reconciliation—some even giving their lives. Among them are the Turkish–Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, murdered in January 2007 outside the headquarters of his newspaper Agos, and the Kurdish lawyer Tahir Elçi, shot in Diyarbakir in November 2015.

Many international voices have spoken out against Kavala’s detention. Positions have also been adopted by Kati Piri, the EU Parliament’s Rapporteur for Turkey and Dunja Mijatović, the European Council’s Human Rights Commissioner who has stated her intention to bring this case to the European Court of Human Rights. Now there is a race against time to support this candidature for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, which would constitute a unique acknowledgment of Osman Kavala’s work and a very important sign of international solidarity. Support must be expressed before February 1st.
To support this candidature it is possible to used the form available on-line.

Please find the letter prepared by the committee for supporting this candidature below:

Translation from Italian: Francesca Simmons

Dear Nobel Committee Members,

I am writing to nominate Osman Kavala, currently detained without trial in Turkey, for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

For the past quarter century, Kavala has played a key role in almost every initiative in Turkey promoting peace, minority rights, or democracy.  A businessman by profession, he has dedicated his life – and his family fortune – to national, regional and grassroots projects sharing his commitment to those goals.

In a nation marred by authoritarianism, sectarian conflict, profoundly flawed justice system, draconian curbs on free expression and fundamental human rights, he has been a steadfast defender of those seeking to establish a just society where all the peoples of Turkey can live together in peace and prosperity, in full knowledge of their intertwined cultural and political histories. 

He has been particularly constant – and courageous – in his work for peace in the Kurdish Southeast, and on behalf of the campaigns inside Turkey for reconciliation between Turks and Armenians, normalisation between Turkey and Armenia, and on Cyprus.

In addition to providing space and assistance to a wide spectrum of civil society organisations over the past three decades – the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, the History Foundation, the Diyarbakır Political and Social Research Institute, and the Turkish Cinema and Audiovisual Culture Foundation – Kavala has founded several highly significant peace projects. 

The best known of these, Anadolu Kültür (Anatolian Culture) is expressly committed to his vision of a society that has shed its prejudices to see cultural diversity not as a source of conflict but of wealth.   At Depo, its platform in Istanbul’s city centre, it has championed a long line of human rights and cultural collaborations not just inside Turkey, but (uniquely) with countries of the Southern Caucasus, the Middle East and the Balkans.

One of Anadolu Kültür’s most significant collaborations is its programme promoting cultural dialogue between Turkey and Armenia.  Launched in 2005 – a year in which the Turkish state was vigorously persecuting and prosecuting scores of writers, activists and academics working for genocide recognition – it set out to consolidate relations between the two countries and work towards reciprocal understanding and sharing.

The programme opened the way for the Armenia-Turkey Cinema Platform and the International Golden Apricot Film Festival.  The Turkey-Armenia Youth Symphony Orchestra, founded in 2010, brought together the Armenian conductor Nvart Andreassian, the Turkish conductor Cem Mansur, and the Cadence Music Centre in Armenia. Another arts project (Speaking to Each Other) brought young people from both countries into constructive conversation.

Kavala also founded the Association for the Production of Cultural Heritage (Kültürel Mirası Koruma Derneği), which works to protect Anatolia’s diverse cultural assets, so many of which are under political threat.   It documents these assets, makes the necessary risk assessments and undertakes to restore them or ensure their proper upkeep.  It has played a crucial role in documenting Turkey’s largely forgotten Assyrian legacy in Anatolia. In the formerly Greek neighbourhood of Tatavla (now Kurtuluş) it has, in addition to cataloguing its old buildings, collected oral histories that together offer an insight into Istanbul as it was when it was still an openly multicultural city.    

The Diyarbakır Arts Centre, established in 2002, is its branch in the mainly Kurdish Southeast.  Since its inception, it has sought to enrich civil society through arts and culture, mostly by means of film festivals and exhibitions.  It is also the home of the Kurdish Literature network, KurdiLit.

Kavala was a trustee of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) and the Open Society Institute (of which the latter had to discontinue its activities in Turkey due to severe political pressure).  He has served on the boards of the Turkey-Poland Business Council, the Turkey-Greece Business Council, and the Centre for Democracy in Southeast Europe. 

He helped to found one of Turkey’s most important publishing houses, İletişim Publications, as well as the Truth, Justice, and Memory Centre (Hakikat, Adalet, Hafıza Merkezi), which aims to uncover the truth about state-sponsored human rights violations over the past thirty years, strengthen the collective memory of those violations, and support survivors in their pursuit of justice. Its memory studies programme carries out its documentation and reporting in line with internationally recognised standards.

Kavala was detained on 18th October 2017 at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport.  He was on his way home from the eastern province of Gaziantep, where he had hoped to set up a project for Syrian refugees with the Goethe Institute. 

Following his arrest, a smear campaign was mounted against him in the pro-government media, linking him with the alleged organisers of the July 2016 failed coup attempt. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has openly denounced Kavala as the ‘Soros of Turkey’.   The Turkish pro-government media has also reported on leaks, indicating that Kavala would be charged with financing the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the largest anti-government demonstrations since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.

More than one year on, no credible evidence has been provided to give substance to these claims, and there has been no indictment issued.

His detention also sparked criticism on international level. The United States Department of State Spokesperson Heather Nauert, the European Parliament Rapporteur for Turkey Kati Piri, and Noam Chomsky have all denounced Kavala’s detention and demanded his immediate release. On October 31, 2018, a group of 35 academics, writers and researchers coming together by Jean-François Bayart and the European Network on Political Group Analysis published an open letter to President Erdoğan demanding that Kavala be released. In November 2018, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović announced that she would be intervening in his case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

At the time of writing, Osman Kavala has been behind bars for 453 days, mostly in solitary confinement.  If, as expected, he is charged with attempting to overthrow the government and the constitutional order, he is likely to face an aggravated lifetime sentence, without the possibility of a pardon.

It is to honour the achievements of this man of conscience over a lifetime of fostering peace and reconciliation inside Turkey and across its borders, at great personal risk and cost, that I respectfully nominate Osman Kavala for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.  For those of us who have had the privilege of working with him over the decades, he is and will continue to be a guiding light, reminding us, even from behind bars, that the struggle for peace is never more important than in troubled times like ours. It is our hope that the Nobel Peace Prize will allow him to offer the same inspiration to others. 

Yours truly,



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