The Hindu Profiles | On Western Ghats, Truth Social and Osman Kavala

Osman Kavala | From philanthropy to prison

Turkey on Tuesday expelled the Ambassadors of 10 countries to protest their joint statement demanding the release of Osman Kavala, a 64-year-old businessman and philanthropist who has been in jail since October 2017. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the statement of the diplomats — representing the U.S., Germany, France, the Netherlands, Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and New Zealand — as “irresponsible”.

Mr. Kavala’s incarceration has become an international symbol of the autocratic turn taken by the Erdogan regime as well as of the democratic resistance to it. Interestingly, although Mr. Kavala was into philanthropy, he never set out to be a dissident or activist. Born in 1957 to a family of tobacco traders, he was heir to the Kavala group of companies, which he took over after his father’s death.

Starting from the early 1980s, when he helped set up progressive publishing houses, Mr. Kavala went on to fund civil society groups that promoted grassroots democracy and pluralism. In 2002, he founded Anadolu Kultur, which supported radical artistic and cultural projects.

A story narrated by a former New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer reflects how Mr. Kavala is unlike the typical philanthropist in his readiness to stand by the values espoused by his altruism even when they clashed with his business interests. Some years ago, Kavala Holdings wanted to build a beachfront hotel in the town of Daylan. But environmentalists protested, arguing that the construction would harm the turtles that nested on the beach. To everyone’s surprise, Mr. Kavala came down and met with the protesters. After listening to their concerns, he tried to change the design of the hotel, and when that did not work out, he simply shut down the project.

Coup attempt

Above all, it is Mr. Kavala’s promotion of initiatives to bridge the divide between the Turkish/Muslim majority and non-Turkish/non-Muslim minorities, including Armenians and Kurds, which seem to have landed him in trouble. This denotes a direct challenge to the ethno-nationalism of the Erdogan regime, which has shown little tolerance for dissenters, especially after the unsuccessful coup attempt of 2016.

Mr. Erdogan reacted to the coup attempt with a massive crackdown. All government institutions, including the Army, academia and the judiciary, were purged of anyone suspected to be disloyal to Mr. Erdogan. The Turkish government accused the Gulen Movement of orchestrating the coup. It was was branded a terrorist organisation and thousands of citizens with links to it were arrested. Mr. Kavala was left untouched by this mass purge of ‘Gulenists’, which began in July 2016.

But on October 18, 2017, Turkish police picked him up for questioning. Subsequently, he was charged with attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and the government, apparently by helping to organise two very different events: the ‘Gezi Park’ protests against Mr. Erdogan in the summer of 2013, and the 2016 military coup.

Mr. Kavala’s lawyers have argued that both these charges were ludicrous. Firstly, no one had linked Mr. Kavala to the Gezi park protests in the course of the four years that separated the event from his detention. Second, it was absurd that Mr. Kavala, a known secularist and liberal, would collaborate with a conservative Islamic community such as the Gulen Movement. The Turkish Supreme Court agreed that the charges were baseless and acquitted Mr. Kavala in February 2020. But he was re-arrested on fresh charges before he could leave jail.

In all, Mr. Kavala has spent more than four years in prison without ever being convicted. Not only has Turkey’s judicial system been a mute spectator, it has become a tool to keep dissenters in jail on politically motivated charges. In an order that was as much an indictment of the Turkish judiciary as it was an exoneration of Mr. Kavala, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ordered his release in December 2019.

Turkey is bound by the rulings of the ECHR but has so far failed to comply. The diplomats’ letter and Mr. Erdogan’s churlish reaction to it are the latest episode in the conflict between the two sides on the issue of human rights.

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 5:06:38 PM |

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