On the morning of November 16, Turkish police detained (and later released) over a dozen high-profile academics and cultural workers as part of a widening investigation into the activities of Osman Kavala. A beleaguered cultural philanthropist, 61-year-old Kavala has been in solitary confinement since October 2017, detained by the government and accused of orchestrating a plot to topple it. His ongoing detention has been widely criticized by European Union leaders.
In 2002, Kavala, founded Anadolu Kültür, an organization that funds cultural centers in underdeveloped areas of Turkey, including the renowned Istanbul art space DEPO and the Diyarbakır Arts Center, a cultural node in the predominantly Kurdish area of south-eastern Turkey.
According to government-aligned media, Kavala is being held for orchestrating the 2013 Gezi Park protests, in addition to his alleged role in the failed military coup in 2016. He is accused of attempting “overthrow the government or prevent it from fulfilling its duties by spreading chaos and confusion.”
As of November 2018, he remains in solitary confinement in a Turkish prison without being formally charged. This is part of an ongoing crackdown since a state of emergency was imposed after the failed coup in July 2016, in which Turkish authorities have detained more than 142,000 people.
Several days after his initial arrest, the newspaper Daily Sabah, which maintains close to ties to the Erdoğan government, accused Kavala of being a “business tycoon with a shady background” and having contacts to the “Gülenist Terror Group” (FETÖ), the US-based cleric Erdoğan has also accused of orchestrating the 2016 attempted-coup, neither of which have been substantiated by evidence or government disclosure.
Despite his arrest, Kavala remains listed as chair of Anadolu Kültür, which connects practitioners from the fields of the art, business, and civil society to efforts that support the production and sharing of culture and art in cities across Turkey and abroad. According to its mission statement, it operates “with the belief that cultural and artistic exchange will help develop mutual understanding and dialogue and overcome regional differences and prejudices, and that a broader cultural life will elicit a discussion of concepts such as citizenship, identity and belonging.”
On October 18, 2017, Kavala was arrested and detained when he returned from Gaziantep (where he had met staff of the Goethe-Institut, an organization that often partners with Anadolu Kültur on international projects).
President Erdoğan has repeatedly referred to Kavala as “Turkey’s Soros,” a reference to the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros who is often the target of right-wing, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
The state-run Anadolu news agency reported last Friday that Turkish police executed 20 arrest warrants in the early morning hours, part of what many are calling a widening probe against civil servants and cultural practitioners closest to Anadolu Kültür.
One of those detained in Friday’s raids is Asena Günal, the program coordinator of DEPO and one of the co-founders of Siyah Bant, a research platform that documents censorship in the Turkish arts sector. Another is Yiğit Ekmekçi, the sitting Executive Board Deputy Chair of Anadolu Kültür, together with Bora Sarı.
Others targeted in Friday’s raids had links to the Academics for Peace petition, a document circulated and signed in 2016 by over 2,000 high-profile Turkish academics, who voiced their support for peace in the south-east of Turkey, where for decades, an on-again/off-again war has been targeting ethnic Kurds in the region.
Hakan Altinay, a researcher for the Brookings Institution and Yale University was also one of those detained. Altinay previously chaired the Turkish board of Soros’s Open Society Foundation, an international grant-giving network that supports civil society groups around the world with a stated aim of advancing justice, education, public health, and independent media.
Another was Çiğdem Mater, an acclaimed film producer with close ties Anadolu Kültür, who was taken into custody Friday morning from a hotel in Kaş where she was in the process of making a new film.
According to a statement released by Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, those detained were within the scope of the Kavala investigation, all of whom were accused of bringing “professional protestors” from abroad in advance of overthrowing the state. Those detained and questioned last week included:
Professor Dr. Betül Tanbay from the Department of Mathematics at Boğaziçi University and an Academic for Peace signatory, Professor Dr. Turgut Tarhanlı, Dean of the Faculty of Law of İstanbul Bilgi University; Anadolu Kültür Executive Board Deputy Chair Yiğit Ekmekçi; executive board member Ali Hakan Altınay; General Coordinator of Anadolu Kültür Asena Günal; its former director general and Co-Director of Truth Justice Memory Center Meltem Aslan; Bora Sarı from Anadolu Kültür; Ayşegül Güzel, Filiz Telek, Yiğit Aksakoğlu, Yusuf Cıvır, Hande Özhabeş, and producer Çiğdem Mater.
As of Monday, November 19th, 11 of those detained in last Friday’s arrests have been released and placed on a travel ban, while the remaining two have been remanded to custody. However, their arrests point to a larger issue at hand.
According to Asli Kazan, a lawyer with the Istanbul-based law-firm Kazan Law Office, who is representing one of the detainees, Turgut Tarhanlı, the detentions are part of a wider probe in Turkey that is threatening the rule of law in the country.
Kazan said in a series of tweets that Turkey’s ruling AK Party (Justice and Development Party) is working towards minimizing the separation of powers between the executive and judiciary branches of government. “Power, independent, and neutral judicial process are under threat Turkey today,” she said. “Where a competent law school dean, Turgut Tarkhan, has been taken in custody, in an event that sends a not so subliminal, direct message that the AKP is severing all ties with the law.”
Tarhanlı is a respected law school professor and dean of the faculty of law at Bilgi University whose academic and legal work over the last several years has focused on topics such as human rights, case-law, refugees, and asylum seekers. In 2001, he was awarded a certificate of appreciation by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who singled out his contributions regarding the protection of refugee rights in Turkey.
However, individuals associated with Anadolu Kültür, including most of those arrested or detained this past Friday, both share a seemingly common background: support for peace in Kurdish areas of the country, and/or a connection to Anadolu Kültür, in what many are describing as an ongoing probe against academic and cultural freedoms in Turkey.
Last week, the European Commission drew attention to Kavala’s ongoing detainment without charge, in addition to lengthy human rights abuses brought to light by the European Court of Human Rights, which earlier this year agreed to hear Kavala’s application, with activists calling on the European bodies to in turn suspend Turkey’s accession talks into the EU.
The arrest of more than a dozen high-profile civil servants this Friday serves as a stark reminder of the challenges outspoken critics of the government face in Turkey today. According to the US-based network Scholars-at-Risk, more than 880 university professors, students, and staff have faced imprisonment, prosecution, dismissals, and travel restrictions since the failed coup attempt in 2016. Artists at Risk (AR), an organization that tracks and monitors artistic freedoms in politically tense areas around the world, reports a significant rise in applicants to its residency programs from Turkish art-practitioners, including those who participated in Kurdish-related protests such as the Academics for Peace petition, those threatened due to their membership in leftwing unions, or many persecuted for their much earlier participation in the 2013 occupation of Gezi Park .
However, despite countless threats, court cases, travel bans, and the general climate of fear, Artists-at-Risk said in an email to Hyperallergic that they are monitoring two cases of imprisoned visual artists: Zehra Doğan and Fatoş İrven.
Meanwhile, the detention of the individuals associated with Kavala and Academics for Peace, comes on the heels Erdoğan’s blatant hypocrisy concerning the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul this past October. A shocking, though not altogether uncompromising double-standard has officially emerged as the new normal in Turkey today, where Erdoğan, keen on exposing foreign adversaries, continues to employ extraordinary rendition as a means of silencing domestic critics at home.