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Civil rights defender Osman Kavala in jail for over 1000 days

European Court of Human Rights has ordered his release

Osman Kavala, since November 1, 2017 detained in pre-trial detention in Silivri High Security Prison

Osman Kavala, since November 1, 2017 detained in pre-trial detention in Silivri High Security Prison Imago/Zumapress

Osman Kavala, Turkish businessman, philanthropist and civil rights defender, has been detained since November 1, 2017 in pre-trial detention in Silivri High Security Prison in Istanbul, where several Turkish journalists, lawyers and intellectuals are also detained, accused of plotting against the state. He served nearly 1,100 days in jail despite the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling in May 2020, which ordered his release because the charges against him were baseless.

The long judicial process began in October 2017 with his arrest for "attempting through force and violence to overthrow the constitutional order of the Republic of Turkey or introduce a different order or prevent this order" and for being the head and financier of the Gezi Park protest, that broke out in Istanbul in 2013.

The trial, which began in June 2019, reached the sixth and final hearing on 18 February this year, in which the acquittal of all 16 defendants and the release of Osman Kavala, the only one in detention, was ordered. But Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office issued an arrest warrant on him regarding the same investigation on which he was released before and he was rearrested.

Then, on October 8, a new indictment was triggered against him, with consequent arrest, for "political or military espionage" and because his activities during the Gezi Park protests were "related to the FETÖ (Fethullahist Terrorist Organization)", considered the "mastermind" of the attempted military coup of 15 July 2016, according to the indictment formulated by the 36th Heavy Criminal Court in Istanbul. The first hearing of the trial is set for the December 18.

The penalty to which Kavala could be sentenced for attempting to overthrow Turkey's constitutional order (under Turkish Penal Code article 309) is an "aggravated" life sentence, which includes severe restrictions on movement in prison or prolonged isolation and no prospect of early release. A treatment considered a violation of the absolute prohibition of torture by the European Court of Human Rights.

In defense of the philanthropist, an international campaign is underway ("Free Osman Kavala") which was joined, among others, by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), which defined as "politically motivated and bereft of legal credibility" the accusations against the businessman and rights defender.

According to the indictment, the occupation of Gezi Park was one of the "acts aimed at compromising the functioning of the legitimate government of the Republic of Turkey" and the institutions created by Kavala, such as Anadolu Kültür and Truth, Justice and Memory Studies Association were funded by George Soros, who through the Open Society Foundation encourages people to engage for social purposes and then exploits them by pushing them to act against governments to provoke mass uprisings.

According to the prosecutor, Anadolu Kültür was engaged in "analyzing the social and cultural attributes of the society of Turkey for intelligence purposes and carrying out activities to provoke people into animosity and hatred, considering the people's differences of
language, race, religion, sect, region and so on" and its projects are "crimes".

For Hugh Williamson, Human Rights Watch director for Europe and Central Asia, the new indictment against Osman Kavala demonstrates the Turkish authorities' flagrant misuse of the courts for political ends and their fundamental disregard for the basic principles of criminal justice. "Defying the European Court of Human Rights order to release Kavala has confirmed the Court's conclusion that Turkey is using detention and prosecution to silence a human rights defender".

Osman Kavala's commitment to culture

Osman Kavala's interest for culture and social commitment began in the 1980s, when, together with others, he founded İletişim Yayınları, a publishing house that carried out an extensive publishing activity by offering, in addition to fiction and non-fiction, also a series of encyclopedias on the social and political history of Turkey to contribute to the democratization process after the 1980 military coup. 

In the following years Osman Kavala, after quitting his position in his family business, became one of the protagonists of the Turkish civil society, promoting initiatives in the artistic and cultural field, such as Anadolu Kültür, a non-profit organization he chaires, which manages centers in various areas of Turkey, including the Diyarbakir Arts Center, located in the main city of the predominantly Kurdish region, and Depo, a space that in Istanbul hosts exhibitions, conferences, screenings and workshops.

Anadolu Kültür's goal is to support local initiatives, emphasize cultural diversity and strengthen international collaborations in the belief that art and civil culture contribute to dialogue and peace.

Osman Kavala was recently awarded the 2020 International Hrant Dink Award, established by the Hrant Dink Foundation in memory of the Turkish-Armenian journalist, who had worked for the dialogue between the two communities and was murdered in Istanbul in 2007. The motivation of the award (at its 12th edition) recalled that Kavala, who devoted his life to building a pluralistic and democratic society, showed that human rights and social dialogue can be strengthened through culture and art.

In a moving letter sent from prison to express gratitude to the members of the jury, Osman Kavala described with pain the progressive disintegration of the rule of law - one of the pillars of the Republic - and the systematic use of the judiciary and trials to eliminate certain individuals and groups, adding however that he has not lost hope, because both political actors and civil society organizations seem to better understand that the independence of the judiciary and its adherence to basic legal norms are the first and most important requirement of democracy.
"In my particular case, politicians advocating different opinions, as well as columnists raising their objections to all that happened to me, help me become more optimistic about the possibility of a genuine judiciary reform in our country. If the era of inventing fictitious crimes is closed, I do hope that it will be possible to create the circumstances of peaceful co-existence".

Osman Kavala, a great friend of Hrant Dink, had participated in June 2012 in the inauguration of the new Garden of the Righteous Worldwide in Gyumri, a city of Armenia near the border with Turkey, where the first tree was dedicated to the journalist, who had worked for the recognition of the Armenian genocide and the protection of minorities in Turkey.

Antonio Montalto, Honorary Consul of Italy in Gyumri and president of the Family Care Foundation, remembers with these words Osman Kavala, whom he met on several occasions after the ceremony at the Garden of the Righteous: "I saw him for the last time when he came here to Gyumri, a few weeks before he went to jail. We were in contact for a possible collaboration with Anadolu Kültür in the artistic field. Kavala is one of those rare people you talk to and you think he's really serving his country, but he's not willing to trade his values ​​for any false patriotism. A person of high stature, a visionary who, like all visionaries, follows his principles. The charges against him are absolutely ridiculous".

Viviana Vestrucci, Gariwo, the Garden of the Righteous

10 November 2020

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