Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Osman Kavala: the Businessman who Troubled Erdoğan

Osman Kavala
(FILES) In this file photograph taken on October 31, 2018, a journalist stands in front of a poster featuring an image of jailed businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala during a press conference held by his lawyers in Istanbul. Jailed without a conviction since 2017, Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala says he feels like a tool in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attempts to blame a foreign plot for domestic dissent against his rule. OZAN KOSE / AFP

The winds of a political-diplomatic crisis blew between Turkey on the one hand and the US and several European countries on the other, against the backdrop of the continued arrest of Turkish businessman and activist Osman Kavala in Istanbul.

The European Court of Human Rights and ambassadors from several countries intervened to demand his release. Nevertheless, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded to the demand in a speech during the opening of a series of service projects in Eskişehir. He had instructed his foreign minister to declare the ambassadors of the US, Germany, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Canada and Norway New Zealand; persona non grata.

Erdoğan described Kavala as “Soros’s branch in Turkey,” referring to the American billionaire George Soros, accused of conspiring. The Turkish president added: “Ten ambassadors came to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because of him. What insolence is this? What do you think this country is? This country is Turkey.”

Kavala, who has been in jail for four years in Silivri prison in Istanbul, faces a series of successive charges, including espionage, conspiracy against the state, planning the 2013 Gezi Park protests, and disclosing confidential information.

Who is Osman Kavala?

Osman Kavala, born in 1957, comes from a family that worked in the tobacco trade and moved from northern Greece to Turkey in 1923 during the population exchange between both countries. He is also a businessman, founder and chairman of the non-profit organisation Anadolu Kültür for Arts and Culture.

In 2019, Kavala was awarded the European Archaeological Heritage Prize from the European Association of Archaeologists for his efforts to protect and preserve Turkey’s cultural heritage at risk. Also, the Human Rights Association in Istanbul awarded him with the 17th Ayşe Zarakolu Freedom of Thought prize.

Kavala has contributed to many civil society organisations and co-founded several associations with environmental and community activities. The list includes BİLSAK Science, Art, and Culture Institution, which promoted discussions around gender and ecology, TEMA Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion for Reforestation, Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, and Centre for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe. He also has been a member of the board of directors of the Turkish Foundation of Cinema and Audio-visual Culture (TÜRSAK), the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), Association for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (KMKD), and other institutions.

Successive Arrests

On October 18, 2017, Osman Kavala was arrested at Atatürk Airport in Istanbul after visiting Gaziantep, where he was preparing to launch a joint project with the Goethe-Institut. Per Article 312 of the Turkish Penal Code, he was charged with attempts to abolish or replace the constitutional order of the Republic of Turkey through force and violence against the backdrop of his support for the 2013 Gezi Park protests. The protests, which the Turkish president considered as the first blatant challenge to his authority, witnessed a group of activists peacefully protesting in Gezi Park, near Taksim Square, refusing the replacement of Gezi Park with a shopping mall. That movement spread throughout the country before the police intervened and oppressed it with force.

Since the court ruled on Osman Kavala in 2017, he has been arrested three times. The Turkish press refers to Osman Kavala’s trials as the “Gezi Park trial”. Upon his first arrest, Kavala faced criminal charges that could imprison him and 15 other people for life, including journalist Can Dündar and actor Memet Ali Albora.

They were accused of being the mastermind behind the Gezi Park protests and conspiring with foreign parties. Hours after acquitting him of Article 312 charges, Istanbul’s Public Prosecutor requested holding Kavala in custody per Article 309, of which he was also acquitted in the same year. But he remained under arrest per Article 328, which stipulates protecting the information which by nature must be kept secret for reasons related to security or related to the domestic or foreign political interests of the state, to prevent political or military espionage.

Europe’s Response

Osman Kavala
Jailed businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala’s lawyers attend a press conference on October 31, 2018 to ask Osman Kavala’s release, – Osman Kavala was arrested a year ago by Turkish authorities and has still to be charged with an offence. (Photo by OZAN KOSE / AFP)

Kavala has appealed to the European Court against the accusations levelled by the Turkish authorities. The authorities arrested Kavala only a day before the European Court of Justice ruled on his pretrial detention. The European Court’s decision stated that “there is insufficient evidence to support the suspicions against Kavala” and that “the criminal proceedings taken against him pursued an ulterior purpose, namely to silence him and dissuade other human rights defenders and paralyse the civil society.” The European Court of Human Rights also requested the Turkish government “to take every measure to put an end to the applicant’s detention and to secure his immediate release”.

In turn, a prominent senator at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Asli Aydıntaşbaş, described the arrest of Kavala as a retaliation. “What Osman has been going through is irrational and unnecessarily cruel,” Aydıntaşbaş added.

“The immediate re-arrest of Osman Kavala in another bogus investigation after his acquittal on trumped-up charges for the Gezi Park protests shows how Turkey’s criminal justice system is politically manipulated with detention and prosecutions pursued at the political whim of the president,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

On September 3, 2020, the International Commission of Jurists, Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Litigation Support Project in Turkey demanded the immediate release of Kavala. In 2021, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe gave Turkey until December 2021 to release Kavala before the infringement proceedings against Turkey began.

“I think the real reason behind my continued detention is that it addresses the need of the government to keep alive the fiction that the (2013) Gezi protests were the result of a foreign conspiracy,” Kavala told AFP in a written response in English from his prison.

“Since I am accused of being a part of this conspiracy allegedly organised by foreign powers, my release would weaken the fiction in question, and this is not something that the government would like,” he added.

Ultimately, the Turkish president does not seem to be backing off from his decision to arrest Kavala. His recent statements indicate that he is ready to move forward with his stance, even if this has cost him a series of diplomatic disputes and tensions. Also, releasing Kavala may turn him into a hero and may push the Turkish street, which is in a state of stress and discontent with the government because of the economic crisis and the suppression of freedoms, to protest and revolt.

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