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Museum Advocacy Group Pens Open Letter Demanding Release of Imprisoned Turkish Philanthropist

Osman Kavala, a prominent cultural philanthropist and advocate for the country’s Kurdish population, has been imprisoned since 2017 despite “no indictment against him.” CIMAM’s Museum Watch Committee calls this arrest a “violation of Turkey’s commitments to human rights.”

Osman Kavala, chairman of Anadolu Kültür (via DEPO’s Facebook page)

Osman Kavala, who has been imprisoned since October 18, 2017 under charges identifying him as one of the organizers of a 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, has just been given a fresh bid of support by the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM), who published a statement calling for his release last week. Kavala is the co-founder and Executive Board Chair of Anadolu Kültür (Anatolian Culture), an organization active at the intersection of civil arts and culture that aims to facilitate a space for dialogue and peace after the severe conflicts of the 1990s in and around Kurdish areas of Turkey.

The civil society activist and philanthropist was taken into custody following the attempted coup in July 2016 after being accused of “attempting to annihilate the constitutional order and the government of a the Republic of Turkey and preventing the government from fulfilling its duties,” in addition to being one of the organizers of the Gezi Park Protests that shook the country in 2013.

“Despite the long period he has spent in detention,” the CIMAM statement points out, “no evidence against him has been presented and at this point there is no indictment against him.”

Kavala “has worked over the past fifteen years in a variety of domains of arts and culture, from the TANDEM program, enhancing collaboration between Turkish and European cultural administrators, up to issues related to cultural heritage,” the CIMAM statement continues.

Kavala founded Anadolu Kültür in 2002 together with a team of like-minded individuals from the arts, business world, and civil society. Since then, the organization has formed partnerships with international cultural organizations, such as the Goethe Institut, as part of a wider initiative to develop cross-cultural projects, touring art exhibitions, conferences, and film productions.

Diyarbakır Arts Center’s BAK: Revealing the City Through Memory in 2016 (image via Diyarbakir Sanat Facebook Merkezi Public Facebook Group)

Anadolu Kültür is also the parent organization of the Diyarbakır Arts Center (Diyarbakır Sanat Merkezi – DSM), which is a local initiative in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakır. Anadolu Kültür also later opened DEPO in Istanbul, an independent, non-commercial arts organization that is open to critical voices and perspectives not often seen elsewhere.

Since it’s founding, the Diyarbakır Arts Center has been an important cultural node in the predominantly Kurdish area of south-eastern Turkey, where the government has waged a near-constant campaign of ethnic cleansing against Kurdish people and their culture.

Following Kavala’s arrest, Turkish police took into custody in November last year thirteen other prominent academics and civil society representatives, including board members and advisors from Anadolu Kültür: Asena Günal, Yiğit Ekmekçi, Hakan Altınay, Meltem Aslan, and Çiğdem Mater.

The organization has continued to draw the ire of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, in a speech last year, accused Kavala of being the Turkish George Soros: “The connections of the person they call the ‘red Soros of Turkey’ are coming to light,” he said, according to a report by Al-Monitor.

Kavala is currently being held in the high-security Silivri Prison on the outskirts of Istanbul, where he languishes without being formally charged with a crime, in a state of indefinite detention and often in solidarity confinement.

Inside the Silivri Prison where Kavala is being held, there is a courtroom that was constructed for political prisoners and to avoid the risky and time-consuming transportation of the confined suspects to a courthouse 50 miles away.

The ongoing crackdown against associates of Anadolu Kültür — not to mention the Kurdish people in general — come amidst Erdoğan’s growing hypocrisy with respect to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.

This the entire district of Diyarbakır, nearly half of which was destroyed by fighting in recent years (image via Wikipedia Commons)

Though some arrested in the latest November sweep have been released on bail, many remain on a travel ban while they await full disclosure (which can often take years). This prevents them from traveling and leaves those charged in a state of legal and social limbo, not knowing when they will face trial, much less what they have been formally charged with.

The targeting of Anadolu Kültür seems to be part of a wider global trend. In November 2018, George Soros’s Open Society Foundation was also forced to shutter their Turkish operations after a speech by Turkish president Erdoğan accused the billionaire philanthropist of “trying to divide and destroy nations.”

Open Society said in response that it had been the target of “baseless claims” in the Turkish media that made it impossible for it to continue its work.

In addition, Soros’s Central Europe University, located in Budapest, was “forced out” last year after a national law on education was passed by Viktor Orbán’s ruling Fidesz Party. The law made it impossible for the university to comply, leading to widespread protests and criticism from civil society groups who accused the Hungarian Prime Minister of stifling free expression and education in the country.

CIMAM is an Affiliated Organization of the International Committee of Museums (ICOM), a non-governmental organization founded in Paris in 1946 in the wake of World War II that aims to maintain formal relations with UNESCO through consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

These organizations have a pattern of advocacy work that aims to preserve cultural and heritage, both past and present. Organizations like CIMAM and ICOM are important because of their role in establishing professional and ethical standards for museum activities, maintained via its vast networks of international museum professionals (ICOM currently has 40,000 professional members spread over 141 countries, with 119 national committees, and 30 international committees).

“CIMAM, the international association of contemporary art museums, is deeply concerned by these events which it considers to be in violation of Turkey’s commitments to human rights and the fundamental freedoms of transparent debate and the exchange of ideas within society,” the organization recently said. “CIMAM believes this situation represents systematic harassment of leading cultural professionals and we wish to express our solidarity with our colleagues in Turkey.”

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