Kafka on stage in Istanbul, again. Why Osman Kavala remains jailed
Mariano Giustino 2 March 2020

The court case of Osman Kavala reveals a scenario worthy of Kafka. It would seem that in an “Erdoğanian” version of justice there is a glimmer of a specious acquittal. Kafka’s description of a “specious acquittal” in his novel “The Trial” is that of a sentence that at any moment can be revoked by another judge or another court: a real nightmare! The accused, even though acquitted, can live in permanent angst.

The judicial order absolves, the political order condemns. The terrible judicial journey of Osman Kavala may well be summarized in this short expression.

At 3pm on Tuesday the 18th of February, the 30th Penal Court of Istanbul absolved Kavala of the charge of subverting the constitutional order when he supported the anti-government movement at Gezi Park in 2013, reputed by the government to be a subversive organization. At about 9pm, after only six hours, the Attorney General of Istanbul released a new arrest warrant charging Kavala of having had a leading role in the July 15, 2016 coup attempt.

The shouts of joy and the long applause that followed the acquittal quickly transformed into a tremor of grave bewilderment for the new and heavy charge. The free man soon transformed back into detainee with a looming request for an aggravated life sentence.

The Gezi trial, which had reached its sixth hearing, had seen 16 accused, all charged with having supported the subversive organization “aiming to overthrow the Erdoğan government”. The court announced the acquittal of nine of the accused, including Osman Kavala, president of the Anadolu Kültür Institute that he had founded. The Institute acted as a precious focal point to understand civil society in Turkey as well as minorities and their condition.

On the 10th of December 2019, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) had asked for his immediate release, but the court in Istanbul, as had happened with other cases, like that of Selahattin Demirtaş, leader of the Democratic Peoples’ Party, did not take into account the ECHR’s peremptory ruling. Kavala’s lawyer, Ikan Koyuncu, commented on what had happened through his Twitter account, saying: “Erdoğan donned his toga and arrested my client”.

But what is the strategy adopted by the Turkish President in this internal fight between judicial power that he has yet to completely control and the political power which is solely in his hands?


Judges vs judges

It would seem that in the world of the Turkish judiciary there is an influential current that is more loyal to the Code and the Constitution that often seems to conflict with the political power that the President of the Republic embodies. This, it would seem, is the reason for which, if the more “liberal” arm of the judiciary emits sentences not to Erdoğan ’s liking, the latter “corrects” them through his influence.

This is precisely what happened to the ex-parliamentarian of the People’s Republican Party (CHP) Eren Erdem. Erdem, a defender of human rights of the largest opposition party, the CHP, was also accused of subverting the constitutional order and was jailed in Kavala’s same prison.

First, he was absolved by a court in Istanbul and just a short while later was again the subject of an arrest warrant released by the Attorney General of the Republic, and then freed again.

The two cases are very similar, and the technique is always the same: to open at least two cases against members of the opposition that are also well regarded by civil society, so that if one case were to end with an acquittal, arrest in the second case could follow.

This is also what happened in the case of the intellectuals Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, Şahin Alpay and to the charismatic leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, Selahattin Demirtaş.

Now, the Higher Judicial Council has opened an investigation against the judges that acquitted Kavala on the 18th of February.


Construction of an enemy

Osman Kavala was born in 1957 to a rich aristocratic ottoman family originally from the Balkans. In 1982, after the death of his father, Mehmet Kavala, one of the wealthiest businessmen in Turkey, Kavala took the reins of his family’s tobacco business. If he had wanted, he could have lived like a king in his London home, rejecting his past as a leader of the left, having fought for the workers’ party. He did nothing of the sort, instead he used his material, spiritual and physical wealth to fight for Turkey’s democracy.

He studied economics at the University of Manchester, and became a pioneer of a number of innovations in Turkey. In 1980 he introduced the famous Commodore 64 computer into the country. He founded MiKES, an aerospace and defense electronics company, winning the tender to develop the protection systems for F-16 aircraft.

He is on the board of a number of business and social organizations, as well as the important and secular think-tank TESEV, he is on the Scientific Board of the Open Society Foundations and the Citizen’s Association of Helsinki and the Culture Foundation of Diyarbakir.

On Wednesday the 18th of October 2017, the day of his arrest, he was participating in a conference organized by the Goethe Institute in Gaziantep.

Kavala’s arrest surprised many because he had been able to create an important dialogue between the government and civil society on the Kurdish question. He was, in fact, part of a commission of “elders” created by the government in 2014 that brought together over 70 intellectuals, experts, academics and people from the entertainment industry with the aim of monitoring public opinion in Southwest Anatolia and to illustrate for them a roadmap proposed by the governing party, the AKP, on the resolution of the Kurdish question. The roadmap was the result of negotiations between the executive branch and the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Abdullah Öcalan, held in İmralı, a maximum-security prison; a negotiation that fell apart just a few months after it had begun.

But after the fracturing of the peace process with the PKK and with the electoral success of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HPD), Erdoğan lost his parliamentary majority and soon after brokered an alliance with the ultra-conservative Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). This alliance heralded the end of any openness towards the Kurds. Since then, Ankara has not looked favorably at the support offered by Kavala to the liberal and secular civil society that formed the country’s opposition.

After Osman Kavala’s arrest, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan exclaimed that “the identity of the Turkish Soros had been revealed”, accusing him of being a businessman that attempted to influence Turkish politics. This is how the pro-government newspapers labelled him Kızıl Soros or Red Soros and accused him of virtually anything. They intimated that he had been behind every obscure incident in Turkey in the last decades. They accused him of supporting terrorism, of having financed the Gezi movement and of having had a leading role in the failed July 2016 coup. They even accused him of having participated in a meeting of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) reportedly held in Russia.

Kavala is guilty of having rebelled from the start against repressive institutions in Turkey while being able to remain within them, running a series of companies and giving his profits to worthy causes. He is an ardent champion of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation and his philanthropy has benefitted a large gamut of projects ranging from Kurdish, Alevist and Christian rights, to the protection of the environment. He has aided many poor students, intellectuals and artists.


Gezi, the fight of all fights

The Gezi trial, in which he was indicted, is considered a trial of Turkish civil society, long since under attack. Arrests and intimidation are threatening the most precious democratic resource, civil society (sivil toplum) that has developed since the ‘80s and is without a doubt one of the most active and combative in Europe, conducting precious work in almost all areas.

However, why has there been this doggedness towards such an influential and respected person?

Erdoğan directly accused Osman Kavala of being behind a seditious plot in support of the “subversives of Gezi” aiming to topple the government. He did not approve of the Istanbul court’s acquittal as he himself was one of the first to accuse Kavala and allowed for the publishing of a defamatory press campaign against him.

Erdoğan ’s theory is that the demonstrations in Gezi were none other than a criminal operation to subvert the institutional order and to topple his government and that therefore those that orchestrated and financed the protests must be punished.

The acquittal rendered his theory unfounded and indirectly would legitimize the spontaneous anti-government protests that started from the ground up, unconnected to any political party or to any ideology. Different and transversal strata of the population participated in the protests to say “no” to Erdoğan’s authoritarianism. This sentence for Erdoğan was, in short, unacceptable. The day after the acquittal and Kavala’s new arrest, Erdoğan expressed to the parliamentarians in his party his opposition to the judges’ decision because “in the Gezi revolts no one was innocent”.

Erdoğan claimed precisely that “in one move they tried to free him”. An accusation against the same judges that had judged Kavala, alleging they were in Soros’s service, who according to him “was behind the scenes as an occult director with a subversive plot, like a coup.” He implied therefore that he would never accept an acquittal for Osman Kavala.

One could say that Kavala has become the scapegoat, held up as a negative example and that his detention served as a warning and intimidation for anyone who would oppose Erdoğan or his regime.


Photo: Ozan Kose / AFP

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