Apr 21 2020

900 Days Imprisoned and Counting

by HG Masters

Turkish philanthropist OSMAN KAVALA, who has been imprisoned without charge since October 2017. Courtesy osmankavala.org.

April 18, 2020, marked another grim milestone in the plight of the cultural philanthropist Osman Kavala—900 days as a political prisoner of the Turkish government. With Turkey emerging as a regional epicenter of Covid-19, concerns are rising among his supporters about the condition of the country’s packed prisons, including the maximum-security Silivri Prison outside of Istanbul where the 62-year-old Kavala is detained while prosecutors contrive a new case against him, this time for espionage. 

To bring renewed attention to his case and the crisis facing Turkey’s judicial system, more than 120 international lawyers, activists, and journalists, as well as representatives of the Council of Europe and the foreign ministries of Germany and Sweden joined a private online conference on April 20 to hear the latest on Kavala’s condition, the implications of his case for the rule of law in Turkey, and about the next round of charges that the Turkish government is preparing against him.

On the group call, Asena Günal, director of Anadolu Kültür, the cultural NGO established by Kavala that promotes cultural reconciliation through the arts, laid out the torturous legal charade of the preceding 30 months since Kavala’s initial detainment on October 18, 2017, the extreme charges against him under Articles 309 and 312 of the Turkish criminal code for attempting to overthrow the government, and his acquittal and subsequent re-arrest on February 18, 2020. To date, Günal reminded the audience, Kavala has never been questioned by a prosecutor. In February he was sent back to Silivri prison without appearing before a court. And on March 10, prosecutors announced they will charge him under Article 328 for espionage, for his supposed involvement with the 2016 attempted coup d’état that the government alleges was orchestrated by a religious faction within the military. 

Other participants in the virtual meeting included Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch; Murat Çelikkan from the Memory Center, Istanbul; and New York-based writer Nancy Kricorian, who co-organized, with Kavala, memorial events in April 2015 for the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. All of them offered personal and professional reflections on Kavala and the case against him, noting how his efforts to establish bridges between ethnic and social groups in Turkey had become a threat to the authoritarian and Turkish-Sunni sectarian rule of the Erdoğan government. Sabina Sabolović, from the curatorial collective What, How & for Whom, curators of the 11th Istanbul Biennial in 2009, also spoke about Kavala’s generosity in supporting their projects and building networks among progressive factions in the country. The event was moderated by Eylem Delikanlı of the New York-based Research Institute on Turkey, and Ayşe Bingöl Demir from the Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project at Middlesex University, London.

The conference was held amid concerns about a mass outbreak inside Turkey’s overcrowded prisons. Last week, the government announced it would release more than a third of its imprisoned population, with 45,000 people receiving shortened sentences and another 45,000 released into home detention until the end of May. However, the law bars from release people accused of acts of “terrorism,” now numbering more than 50,000 nationally after government purges following an attempted coup d’etat in 2016 by supporters of a hardline religious group.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has instrumentalized the failed coup attempt to go after its numerous other critics and opponents, including civil-society groups and politicians representing progressive causes and minority communities. This means that while ultra-nationalist assassins like Alaattin Çakıcı are permitted to reside in hotels or at home rather than in prison, opposition politicians, including the co-chairs of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Figen Yüksekdağ and former presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş, and many critical journalists jailed by the Erdoğan regime, including Ahmet Altan, will remain behind bars during the pandemic. 

Kavala’s lawyers and supporters, for now, are not optimistic about any swift resolution, as Turkey is a recurring violator of rulings by the European Court of Human Rights, to which it is a party, and the United States under the Trump administration has shown an unwillingness to address human-rights violations by the Erdoğan government. For now, Kavala’s supporters will continue to press diplomatic and legal routes, as well as to send messages and stage activities to remind him that he has not been forgotten, and his struggle is very much at the center of the country’s efforts to reclaim space for civil society initiatives. 

HG Masters is the deputy editor and deputy publisher of ArtAsiaPacific.

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