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Jan 16 2019

Museum Group Calls For Release Of Turkish Philanthropist

by Julee WJ Chung

CIMAM has published an open letter calling for the release of prominent Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala, who has been imprisoned without charge since October 2017. Image via Amnesty International’s webpage. Photo by Kerem Uzel / NARPHOTOS.

On January 11, the Barcelona-based International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM) published a letter of solidarity calling for the immediate release of prominent Turkish businessman, philanthropist and civil society activist Osman Kavala, who has been held at the Silivri Prison about 100 kilometers from Istanbul since his arrest by anti-terrorism police on October 18, 2017.

Kavala was detained for allegedly “attempting to annihilate the constitutional order and the government of the Republic of Turkey and preventing the government from fulfilling its duties,” as well as masterminding the 2013 Gezi Park protests. He has yet to be formally charged.

In the statement, CIMAM highlighted how “despite the long period he has spent in detention, no evidence against him has been presented.” The organization added that Kavala’s indefinite detention without charge is a “violation of Turkey’s commitments to human rights,” and proof of the Turkish state’s “systematic harassment of leading cultural professionals.”

Kavala is a well-known figure in Turkey and the wider region. Within the cultural community, he is best known as the chairperson of Anadolu Kültür (Anatolian Culture), a nonprofit established in 2002 supporting cultural events in locations outside the major cities of western Turkey, and an important platform for facilitating dialogue on human rights and LGBT issues. The organization has backed reconciliation initiatives with Kurdish civil society groups and launched cultural outreach programs in neighboring Armenia. In 2002, Anadolu Kültür opened the Diyarbakır Art Center, followed by the Kars Art Center in 2005. The latter was shuttered by the Kars municipality in 2009 after the local electoral victory of the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP), co-founded by current Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

After the attempted coup on July 15, 2016 against Erdoğan’s government, which the Turkish state has blamed on US-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen and his followers, tens of thousands of citizens have been detained over alleged links to the Gülen movement and some 200 media outlets have been closed down, including Kurdish news agencies. Among 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Turkey is ranked 157th—one of the worst countries in press freedom. In the last 18 months, more than 45,000 people have been arrested, and over 137,000 individuals have been fired or suspended from government positions.

Journalists with knowledge of the networks between Turkish government officials and various media platforms, such as Amberin Zaman, have also noted that key AKP propagandists are building a “slander campaign” against Kavala.

Following Kavala’s arrest, 13 other cultural workers and academics, including board members and advisers from Anadolu Kültür—Asena Günal, Yiğit Ekmekçi, Ali Hakan Altınay, Meltem Aslan, and Çiğdem Mater—were detained by the Turkish police on November 16 in a series of coordinated pre-dawn raids. All but one have been released on bail, but are now subject to travel bans while awaiting appeal verdicts, which could take several years.

The tightening grip on civil society groups and any figures considered to be in opposition to President Erdoğan and his ruling party has sent a deep chill through Turkey’s cultural community. The crackdown against friends of Anadolu Kültür has also spread across borders. In November 2018, the Open Society Foundation was forced to cease its operations in Turkey after Erdoğan accused its founder, George Soros, of “trying to divide and destroy nations.” Open Society responded that the organization was the target of “baseless claims,” and that the political environment made it impossible for the foundation to continue its work.

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović noted in a report submitted to the European Court of Human Rights from her mission to Turkey in October 2018 that the arrests of Osman Kavala and other activists are part of “a broader pattern of escalating reprisals in Turkey against civil society activists and human rights defenders for their legitimate work.”

Julee WJ Chung is ArtAsiaPacific’s assistant editor.

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