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Explained: Who is Osman Kavala, the jailed Turkish philanthropist the US wants freed

Kavala, a well-known member of Turkish civil society, is known for his support for cultural projects on minority rights, Kurdish affairs and Armenian-Turkish relations.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: February 13, 2021 1:02:44 pm
Ayse Bugra, center, an emeritus professor at the Bogazici University and wife of imprisoned Turkish philanthropist and human rights defender Osman Kavala, who has been in prison for more than three years on charges of espionage and attempting to overthrow the government, talks to media outside a court in Istanbul. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

Turkey on Thursday slammed the United States’ demand for the release of Osman Kavala, a philanthropist and human rights activist, who has spent over three years behind bars despite not being convicted.

The US State Department said on Wednesday, “The specious charges against Kavala, his ongoing detention, and the continuing delays in the conclusion of his trial, including through the merger of cases against him, undermine respect for the rule of law and democracy.”

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry responded by saying, “Turkey is a state of law. No country or person can give orders to Turkish courts about legal proceedings”.

Who is Osman Kavala?

Kavala, a well-known member of Turkish civil society, is known for his support for cultural projects on minority rights, Kurdish affairs and Armenian-Turkish relations, according to Al Jazeera.

Coming from a family of tobacco traders, Kavala co-founded many publishing houses, such as the Iletisim Publishing Company, which served as an important medium for promoting democratic ideas in Turkey after the military coup of 1980, as per the New York Times.

Kavala later became involved in environmental and civil rights causes, and is known for being a driving force behind arts and cultural memory projects for minorities in Turkey such as Yazidis, Kurds, and Armenians. He has also worked to encourage the normalisation of the historically fraught relations between Armenia and Turkey, and is credited for helping with relief efforts during the devastating 1999 earthquake that killed 17,000 people in the country.

Kavala’s arrest

Although Kavala earned a reputation as a noted philanthropist among international donors and diplomats, he emerged as a polarising figure in Turkey, where many saw him as a member of the left-leaning secular elite.

In October 2017, Kavala was arrested and put in pre-trial detention on allegations of financing and orchestrating protests in 2013 against the building of a shopping mall at Gezi Park in Istanbul. He was accused of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” and “attempting to overthrow the government”, and placed in a maximum-security prison.

Then in December 2019, after Kavala had been in prison for more than two years, the European Court of Human Rights called for his release, saying that his detention was meant “to reduce (Kavala) to silence as an NGO activist and human-rights defender, to dissuade others from engaging in such activities and to paralyze civil society in the country.”

Turkish courts refused to implement the decision, despite the Strasbourg court’s rulings being binding on the country as a member of the Council of Europe.

In February 2020, Kavala was acquitted of charges related to the 2013 protests, but was immediately rearrested on fresh charges related to the failed 2016 coup against Erdogan’s government. Subsequently, an appeals court overturned his acquittal on the protest charges.

Last week, a court ruled to combine the two charges, and the hearing is scheduled to start in May. If convicted, Kavala could face a life sentence.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, under whom the country is believed to have moved in a more authoritarian direction, has accused Kavala of being the “Turkish leg” of George Soros– a US billionaire who is known for espousing liberal political causes globally, and is the subject of several conspiracy theories worldwide. Kavala has denied the allegations.

Critics have denounced Kavala’s detainment without conviction as unjust and politically motivated, and have been demanding his release.

Row with the US

Turkey has called the US demand to release Kavala “inconsistent and unprincipled”, and has blamed Washington for refusing to hand over Fethullah Gulen, a US-based cleric it accuses of plotting the failed 2016 coup.

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The US State Department has urged Turkey to implement the 2019 European court ruling to release Kavala, and to “ensure a just, transparent, and speedy resolution to the case in line with its domestic laws and international obligations”.

It has also expressed concern that Henri Barkey, a US-based academic, has been charged along with Kavala for attempting to overthrow the constitutional order. The State Department said, “We also note with concern U.S. citizen Dr. Henri Barkey’s inclusion in these unwarranted court proceedings. We believe the charges against Dr. Barkey to be baseless”.

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