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  • Sep 18, 2019

Moments of Solidarity for Jailed Cultural Philanthropist Osman Kavala During Istanbul Openings

Clockwise from top: supporters of Osman Kavala at the French Consulate for the opening reception of the 16th Istanbul Biennial on September 10; a silkscreened bag featuring Kavala

The Turkish government has held businessman and cultural philanthropist Osman Kavala for nearly 23 months in the maximum security Silivri Prison, but he was not forgotten amid the openings of the private museum Arter and the 16th Istanbul Biennial last week. His supporters organized moments of solidarity at the receptions for both institutions. During the official opening for Arter on the evening of Monday September 9, around 30 people wearing shirts or holding tote bags screen-printed with Kavala’s face stood on the garden steps and interrupted the event, garnering sustained applause from the crowd. The following evening, at the Istanbul Biennial’s opening event, more than 50 people with bags and shirts filled the terrace above the palatial garden of the French Consulate, chanting “Freedom for Osman Kavala,” which was met with more applause from the party-goers. Neither institution attempted to block the brief happenings.

Kavala was initially detained at the Istanbul airport on October 18, 2017, after returning from the city of Gaziantep, where the NGO he founded in 2002, Anadolu Kültür (Anatolian Culture), was engaged in a micro-financing project to encourage cultural initiatives for Syrian refugees. An announcement was made on November 1, 2017, that prosecutors had formally arrested him on charges of “attempting to abolish the constitutional order” and “attempting to remove the government of the Turkish Republic” by financing and organizing the 2013 Gezi Park protests. One year after Kavala’s arrest, police detained 13 of his associates, professors, and other civil-society activists. Only one of those detained at the time, Yiğit Aksakoğlu, the Turkey representative for the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, was eventually jailed. He was released on probation with an international travel ban after a hearing on June 25, 2019. The others remain under investigation with most still banned from traveling or, if abroad, unable to return to Turkey.

Earlier this year in February, Turkish prosecutors had proposed life sentences without parole for 16 defendants—including Kavala—in a 657-page indictment. The indictment alleges that Kavala was working with international philanthropist George Soros through the latter’s network of Open Society Foundations, which have promoted democracy and cultural exchange in 120 countries. Gökçe (Yılmaz) Tüylüoğlu, executive director of Open Society (Açık Toplum Vakfı) in Turkey, is among the defendants. The Turkish government’s financial crimes unit (MASAK) provided evidence of financial links between Open Society in Turkey and Anadolu Kültür. Links between the organizations were already well known, as Kavala was on the board of directors of the Open Society Foundation, and Open Society Foundation funded Anadolu Kültür’s program with the !F Istanbul Film Festival to support new productions looking at environmental, LGBTQ, and human-rights issues. In November 2018, Open Society ceased its operations in Turkey, following the detentions of Anadolu Kültür’s staff and anti-Semitic attacks by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Soros’s sponsored initiatives have been targeted by a far-right league of authoritarian-leaning governments, from Hungary to Russia and Israel.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has reviewed the indictment and found it “presents no evidence that the defendants incited the use of force and violence in an attempt to overthrow the government, or indeed that they committed any other criminal activities.” HRW declared in its own report: “The case bears the hallmarks of a politically motivated effort to turn into a criminal prosecution completely unsubstantiated claims previously advanced in a police report and at the highest levels of government.” On July 18, in a hearing at the 30th High Criminal Court at Silivri Prison, Kavala was again denied probation. The presiding head judge in the case argued for Kavala’s conditional release from prison at a hearing in June and again in July but was out-voted by his peers. The next hearing for Kavala is set to take place on October 8–9.

Members of the art and cultural community in Istanbul have been supportive of Kavala since his detention, with events held to mark his 100th and 300th days in prison. The “Shift” event held on September 9–12, 2018, at Istanbul-based art center Depo featured two-hour slots over four days allowing artists or performers to reflect upon Kavala’s case or the political climate in Turkey. However, at the institutional level, with the exception of the Turkish branch of AICA, the International Association of Art Critics—which convinced its international board to release a statement calling for Kavala's immediate release—other art organizations foundational to the Turkish art community have officially remained silent, including the Vehbi Koç Foundation (VKV), the primary funder of the Istanbul Biennial and the Arter museum, as well as the Istanbul Biennial’s parent organization, the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Art (İKSV). This is despite many of their employees being supporters of Kavala and many of the board members being personal friends of Kavala. Previously, corporations seen as supportive of the Gezi Park protesters, including the Koç family’s conglomerate, have been targeted by the government’s tax inspectors, and cultural organizations like İKSV have already endured years of strained relationships with the government over permissions to hold events or use public spaces.

Kavala has supported human-rights issues and intercultural initiatives throughout his lifetime. Despite his detention, he has remained active in overseeing the projects of Anadolu Kültür, including Istanbul-based art center Depo, Diyarbakır Art Center, and the Space of Culture initiative, which is dedicated to supporting microcultural projects in İzmir, Diyarbakır, and Gaziantep. On September 4, he was awarded the 2019 European Archaeological Heritage Prize by the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) for his efforts in protecting and preserving Ani, a medieval UNESCO World Heritage List status Armenian city on the border of Turkey and Armenia. A new initiative by Anadolu Kültür, titled “Memory of Diyarbakır,” is set to be launched online in the coming weeks. The project looks at the Kurdish, Syriac, and historically Armenian district of Sur, a historical neighborhood within the walled city of Diyarbakır, that the Turkish government demolished in 2016 after clashes between the militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish military, displacing more than 300,000 people.

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

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