Julie Ward on the life imprisonment of Osman Kavala
On April 25th, my friend Osman Kavala, a leading Turkish intellectual, rights campaigner, businessman, restaurateur and philanthropist, was sentenced to life imprisonment by a court in Istanbul. Kavala, who is the founder and chair of the board of Anadolu Kültür, an Istanbul-based nonprofit arts and culture organisation, had already spent more than four years behind bars, detained on several spurious trumped-up charges including involvement in the 2013 Gezi Park protests as well as allegedly being one of the main architects of a coup against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2016.
The panel of three judges also jailed seven other defendants for 18 years each on the charge of aiding the attempt to overthrow the government during the large-scale public protests in 2013. Others now in exile had already been tried and convicted in absentia, including the award-winning journalist Can Dündar. Meanwhile, Gezi activist, actor Memet Ali Alabora, fled the country and is now based in Cardiff.
Kavala addressed the court by video link from Silivri prison near Istanbul, saying that he viewed the entire process as a “judicial assassination”.
“These are conspiracy theories drafted on political and ideological grounds,” he said to a packed courtroom minutes before the sentence was handed down. Erdoğan had portrayed him as a leftist agent of George Soros and accused him of funnelling foreign money aimed at overthrowing the state. “We can never be together with people like Kavala,” Erdoğan had declared in 2020.
Kavala is well known for his support of the Armenian community. This makes him a thorn in the side of Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, who refuse to recognise the genocide which began in April 1915 with the rounding up of hundreds of intellectuals and political activists who were sent on journeys to a certain death.
Kavala was one of tens of thousands of Turkish citizens who were either jailed or fired from their jobs in purges that followed a coup attempt against Erdoğan when he was already president in 2016. Kavala was arrested in October 2017 at Istanbul airport as he returned from a meeting with the Goethe Society in the border city of Gaziantep regarding a civil society cultural development project.
A court acquitted and released him in February 2020 – only for the police to re-arrest him before he had a chance to return home to his wife, Ayşe. Another court then accused him of being involved in the failed 2016 coup. Kavala ultimately ended up facing both sets of charges, but the recent April 2022 ruling only covered the case stemming from the 2013 unrest.
The seemingly arbitrary nature of the alternating charges filed against Kavala have made him a symbol for rights groups critical of Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism which has seen Turkey’s application for membership of the EU stalled. Kavala’s case against pre-trial detention was heard at the European Court of Human Rights in 2020 where it was deemed unlawful, but his imprisonment continued.
His treatment has prompted the Council of Europe to launch rare disciplinary proceedings that could ultimately see Turkey’s membership suspended in the continent’s main human rights grouping.
Speaking from inside the courtroom, co-defendant Mücella Yapıcı, an architect and trade unionist, said: “The Gezi resistance is the most democratic, creative, egalitarian and most inclusive peaceful mass movement in the history of this country. It has become a symbol of talking and making decisions together and protecting all kinds of life.
“Accusations based on imaginary scenarios – groundless accusations like terrorism, coups and manipulation of foreign powers coupled with the coercion of the judiciary, whose impartiality has become quite questionable – cannot change the historical reality of the Gezi Resistance.
“The Gezi Resistance took place on a very legitimate and constitutional basis, within the framework of democratic rights and freedom of expression, that is the truth…. It was not the Taksim Solidarity or the social media calls of individual participants that made the Gezi Resistance grow bigger, but the police brutality and the statements of the government at that time, that increased social tension…
“We reject this lawsuit! We will see the days when those who ruthlessly caused these deaths and injuries of our friends are brought to justice.
“We are aware that you want to make people forget that Gezi is a song that will be part of every resistance on the side of labour, on the side of the poor, on the side of nature, on the side of the oppressed, on the side of the marginalised, on the side of women, on the side of peace.
“The democracy that will come to this country takes its strength from the echoes of the voices in Gezi, which you were not able to suppress, despite all the oppression and violence.”
This article is an attempt to amplify those voices.