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Turkish Arts Philanthropist Acquitted, Then Detained Again

Imprisoned since 2017, Osman Kavala was found not guilty of attempting to overthrow the government, but re-detained on new charges before he could even taste freedom.

Osman Kavala at the Armenian Genocide centennial commemoration near Taksim Square, Istanbul (via Wikimedia Commons)

ISTANBUL — The celebrations were short-lived for supporters of Osman Kavala, a prominent cultural philanthropist in Turkey who has spent the last 841 days behind bars. Just hours after an Istanbul court acquitted Kavala and eight co-defendants on widely derided charges of trying to overthrow the government, he was ordered to remain in detention as part of a previous investigation against him.

“The judiciary in Turkey has lost its independence and its institutional coherence,” Professor Murat Somer, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Koç University, told Hyperallergic. “It is almost impossible to explain what has happened based on legal criteria because this is not about a judicial process, but rather about politics.”

Kavala and other leading members of civil society in Turkey were indicted in March 2019 for their alleged role in organizing the Gezi Park protests in 2013, a mass nationwide uprising against an increasingly authoritarian government. The European Court of Human Rights had issued a ruling in December calling for Kavala’s immediate release due to a lack of “facts, information, or evidence” showing any criminal activity.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized the Turkish court’s verdict as an “attempt to acquit [Kavala] with a maneuver” and the judges who declared the nine defendants not guilty will reportedly be investigated. Almost immediately following his acquittal yesterday, Kavala was accused of involvement in a failed military coup in 2016 and taken to the counter-terror police department today to give a statement.

“This starts the whole thing over from zero; under Turkish law, Kavala can be held in detention again for up to two years without an indictment. It’s a big nightmare,” says Sinan Gökçen, the Turkey representative for Civil Rights Defenders, an international organization that observed yesterday’s trial. He explains to Hyperallergic, “We have used up all of our legal tools; we don’t know how to fight back anymore.”

Other high-profile figures in Turkey have experienced the judicial whiplash of being ordered released and then re-detained, including Kurdish opposition politician Selahattin Demirtaş, writer Ahmet Altan (both still behind bars), and human-rights activist Taner Kılıç, who spent 432 days in prison and remains on trial along with 10 others for alleged membership in a terrorist organization.

“What happens with these kinds of trials is that the energy of civil society and democratic opposition can become divided and exhausted,” says Professor Somer. “Given this, it’s remarkable that people are still active and adamant in Turkey even though it has been a risky thing to do for quite a long time now.”

A defender of cultural rights and diversity and a promoter of social dialogue, democratic reforms, and peaceful change, Kavala is known for building bridges and breaking taboos related to Turkey’s Armenian and Kurdish populations.

“Osman Kavala is being targeted for his leftist political positions and what he is doing in the fields of art and culture to promote pluralistic cultural life in Turkey,” says Asena Günal, executive director of Anadolu Kültür, the nonprofit institution Kavala founded in 2002. Its Istanbul cultural center DEPO is hailed for continuing to tackle challenging issues in its exhibitions and public programs despite an increasingly repressive climate and a rise in self-censorship in Turkey.

Since the 2016 coup attempt, thousands of people have been arrested or stripped of their jobs, including public employees, journalists, and elected opposition politicians. More than 180 media outlets and 1,300 civil society organizations have been shuttered, including groups working to end violence against women, protect children’s rights, and defend the environment.

“Osman Kavala was the first person we would contact when we needed something,” Eren Kesin, the internationally lauded vice president of the Turkish Human Rights Association, told reporters at a press conference last fall about the Gezi case. “By keeping him in prison, the state is creating many victims.”

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