A thousand days behind bars: Osman Kavala’s friends speak up

July 14 marks the thousandth day businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala has spent behind bars. Kavala was taken into police custody on Oct. 18, 2017, and arrested Nov. 1 the same year on charges of attempting to overthrow the Turkish government.

Kavala was accused funding the Gezi Park protests of 2013, through the NGO he founded, Anadolu Kültür (Anatolian Culture), and the Turkey branch of the Open Society Foundations (OSF), of which he was a board member.

A year after Kavala’s arrest, pro-government Turkish media celebrated the OSF’s decision to withdraw from Turkey, citing the “increasingly hostile political environment and a number of baseless accusations.”

“The alliance that Soros the Red is part of targeted Turkey’s politics,” an article published in the newspaper Takvim read, accusing Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist George Soros of inciting the protests.

“Osman had established a foundation that focused on Anatolian civilisations,” historian Taner Akçam told Ahval. “It was a cultural foundation that worked with and shone a light on the contribution Anatolia made to human civilisation.”

“I believe today there is a clash between civilisation and barbarism in Turkey,” Akçam said, placing Kavala on the side of “Turkish civilisation”, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with his allies far-right leader Devlet Bahçeli and left-nationalist politician Doğu Perinçek on the side of “Turkish destruction, lack of culture and regressivism.”

Civilisation will prevail “as soon as possible”, Akçam said.

The protests that began Kavala’s thousand days in prison had started as a small sit-in to protest the demolition of its namesake park in May 2013 and snowballed quickly into the largest protests against any government in Turkey’s history – with an estimated four million people taking to the streets in 80 out of 81 provinces.

“It is not possible that the Gezi events could have been arranged and funded by any organisation,” Anadolu Kültür said in a statement after Kavala’s arrest. “There is no material basis, either, that Anadolu Kültür funded the Gezi events.”

After almost two and a half years spent in prison, Kavala was acquitted on February 18 this year.

“In the end, there is no conviction to speak of, we must always remember that,” musical conductor Cem Mansur told Ahval. “There is no crime, no evidence and no conviction.”

However, Kavala was arrested again before he could be released – this time over charges of having aided the putschists in the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016.

Actress Lale Mansur and veteran human rights lawyer Eren Keskin both believed Kavala was 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.”

Keskin, vice-president of the Turkish Human Rights Association, said she did not see such “indiscriminate arrests, such unfounded trials”, like Kavala’s, even in the 1990s – when human rights violations were reportedly common.

Osman Kavala, according to former Culture Minister Ertuğrul Günay under past Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments, is a man who loves to help – perhaps best evidenced by the pet snails he kept in his prison cell, as immortalised in a short video opera produced by the U.K.-based Opera Circus during global COVID-19 lockdowns in June.

As the artists tell the story, Kavala found two snails nestled in his salad and decided to keep them as pets to keep him company while in solitary confinement. Upon the acquittal ruling, he prepared to leave his cell together with the snails, but had to let them go when he was arrested again.

“He is a man that is one step ahead of the rest of the world,” Günay said. “I struggle to understand why such a man is kept behind bars for so long, with what reasoning.”

Günay spoke fondly of Kavala, calling the philanthropist a close personal friend and a true democrat. Kavala facilitated grants from the World Monuments Fund for several historic sites in Turkey.

“I know he is very conscious of cultural pluralism. He is a citizen of the Republic of Turkey who has truly internalised the 21st century,” he said. “This is spiritual torture that Osman Kavala is subjected to.”

Many among the AKP’s ranks admit to similar sentiments, journalist Nurcan Baysal said, “but nobody does anything”.

“When we talk one-on-one, they say they know Osman very well,” she said in reproach. “But a 63-year-old man who gave his life to the future of this country has served a thousand days in prison. Why don’t they fight for him?”

Naif Allibeyoğlu, former mayor of the eastern Kars district, where Kavala supported several projects and initiatives, spoke fondly of him in a video contribution to a support group and called him a great man of peace.

Kavala thought Anatolia’s multicultural, multilingual identities were important. He supported the Sur district council, in Turkey’s largest Kurdish-majority province of Diyarbakır, as they worked to improve diversity efforts, former mayor of the district Osman Demirbaş said.

“Such a man spending a thousand days behind bars is a shame for democracy,” he said.

The arrest of Kavala, “a man who favours people living together with all their diversity”, as the former mayor put it, “shows how much this system hates this idea. What the system is most afraid of is democracy, equality, and peace”.

Peace is something the government does not like, academic Baskın Oran said.

“Why did Osman get picked on like nobody else did? Because he tried to work through issues with peace. To abuse Turkish nationalism on top of Islam, the government needs a concrete, armed force,” he said. “But Osman never gave them the chance. Osman remained peaceful always.”

Scholar Nora Şeni called Kavala “an exception even among Turkey’s intellectuals”.

“He was not uninformed on the Holocaust, and not indifferent towards anti-Semitism. He had internalised the motto that made Europe what it is after World War II: Never Again,” she said.

Nesrin Nas, former leader of the centre-right Motherland Party, described Kavala’s legal process against as a “punishment to civil society”.

Kavala was demonised and criminalised, marked a foreign agent and a spy, a terrorist and a supporter of terrorism, “through the media they control, or through their social media trolls – there is no indictment to speak of really”, Nas said.

A narrative is weaved around Kavala to cast him as an outsider to the Millet – Erdoğan’s “Nation” – the academic added.

“He reminds me of patience, reconciliation and living together with all diversity. He truly is a seeker of truth on Earth.”

For all that he is, the man could also be a mystery to many, Baysal, the journalist, mused.

“It is unbelievable for many that a person would do all these for nothing in return, because they believed in those values. There are people who make the world more beautiful, and Osman is one of them,” she said.

"There still is no indictment. He was acquitted of the charges he faced trial for. But still (Kavala) remains in prison,” main opposition Republican People's Party deputy Sezgin Tanrıkulu said in a video message, stating again that the European Court of Human Rights rejected Turkey’s appeal and finalised its ruling for Kavala’s immediate release in May.