Erdoğan sees philanthropist Osman Kavala as threat after 1,000 days in jail

Turkish authorities under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have singled out philanthropist and businessman Osman Kavala as a threat after the failed military coup attempt of July 15, 2016, keeping him in prison for almost three years with no conviction, journalist Fulya Özerkan wrote for news website 24 Matins on Monday.

Supporters of Kavala held a press conference on Saturday, ahead of the 1,000th day the philanthropist has spent in prison on terrorism and espionage charges during an ongoing trial.

Kavala was first detained on Oct. 18, 2017 and was accused of having funded the anti-government demonstrations of 2013, dubbed the Gezi Park protests after the urban park whose planned demolition sparked a small sit-in that snowballed into a months-long nationwide phenomenon.

The wealthy philanthropist, relatively unknown outside of Turkey’s civil society circles until then, was arrested on Nov. 1, exactly a thousand days ago.

Supporters say Kavala has used his wealth to help society, Özerkan said.

Kavala has become a symbol of what critics say is a crackdown on civil society, she said.

“We’ve had 1,000 days stolen from our life,” the journalist cited Kavala’s wife, political economy professor Ayşe Buğra, as saying during a press conference marking the occasion.

“In these thousand days, Osman Kavala was arrested four times, released three times, and acquitted once,” Buğra said at the event. “I cannot make sense of all that has happened, not with legal conclusion, not with common sense.”

There is only one investigation of Kavala, his lawyer İlkan Koyuncu said, out of which several indictments were drafted. He was acquitted on February 18 this year of attempting to overthrow the government but was re-arrested on charges of espionage and ties to the July 15 coup attempt before he could be released from prison.

Koyuncu said that there was no evidence proving Kavala had committed any crimes.

Another one of Kavala’s lawyers, Deniz Tolga Aytöre, said in the press conference that Kavala had not faced any investigations related to the evidence used for the espionage charges. “The evidence is now seven years old,” Aytöre said, adding that the court had previously deemed it inadmissible.

Due to the terrorism charges against him, Kavala remained in prison even after Turkey’s parliament passed an amnesty bill to help reduce Turkey’s high prison population by tens of thousands to better combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Osman Kavala was born in Paris in 1957 and studied economics at the University of Manchester. He took over his father’s business after his death in 1982 and then used the family’s financial resources to fund cultural and artistic projects.

Kavala helped build bridges and turn ideas into reality by funding them, Özerkan said. The foundation he established, Anadolu Kültür, promotes human rights through art – including with neighbouring Armenia, with which Turkey has no diplomatic ties, she said.

Özerkan cited writer Ümit Kıvanç as saying that Kavala was “a man who works for justice in the world,” who didn’t “even lead a bourgeois life”. According to Anadolu Kültür’s director general Asena Günal, Kavala never treated the foundation’s employees like he was a boss and was a humble man.

Kavala “has always seen the value of citizens being actively engaged in peaceful civic initiatives,” Özerkan cited Emma Sinclair-Webb of the Human Rights Watch as saying. “It is truly appalling to see him targeted as he has been made the pawn in some incomprehensible political game.”

Actress Lale Mansur told Ahval on the thousandth day after Kavala’s first detention that the philanthropist had been specifically targeted, over a possibly personal grudge that is affecting the trial process.

“That is because Osman deals in the two least desired things: peace and culture,” Mansur said. “He works for the two most important things in this world.”

Objecting to how Kavala is occasionally portrayed, as a “rich, bourgeois businessman,” Kıvanç said he was “a stubborn leftist! Turkey is a land that chips away at everything that is good.”

Koyuncu said there had been irregularities in Kavala’s trial, due to politicians who hold power stepping outside of the bounds of the law.