Turkish arts philanthropist Osman Kavala (courtesy of the Free Osman Kavala Campaign)

While art philanthropist Osman Kavala has been jailed in Turkey for more than three years without conviction, the country has now filed an unprecedented lawsuit in an attempt to dismantle his Istanbul-based arts organization Anadolu Kültür.

Turkey’s Trade Ministry has filed a lawsuit demanding the dissolution of Anadolu Kültür, a cultural organization founded by Kavala in 2002, alleging that it was originally registered as a commercial enterprise but operated as a nonprofit, relying on donations and grants.

According to Turkish news agency Bianet, the lawsuit charges the organization with violating “public order or the field of operation of the business,” as stated in article 210 of the Turkish Commercial Code.

In a statement today, February 16, Anadolu Kültür decried the lawsuit as “the continuation of the unlawfulness” against Kavala. The organization also noted that this is the first lawsuit of its kind in Turkey’s history. 

“Our company has carried out all its operations legally and transparently since its establishment in 2002,” Anadolu Kültür’s statement said. “No crime was detected in MASAK (Financial Crimes Investigation Unit) and the Ministry’s investigations.”
The allegations made by some media outlets within the scope of the case are deliberate, some of which are not even stated in the relevant file,” the statement added, alluding to a report in the pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak, which accused Kavala of using the foundation’s commercial status to evade oversight by Turkey’s Foundations Directorate General.

According to Yeni Şafak’s report, Kavala used his company to funnel foreign donations “without providing any goods or services in return” from entities including Open Societies, a foundation associated with the billionaire George Soros.

On Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called Kavala a “representative of Soros” while attacking students at Boğaziçi University, who have been protesting against his appointment of a loyalist to head the institution. He specifically targeted the philanthropist’s wife, Ayşe Buğra Kavala, who is an academic at the university, saying: “The wife of the representative of Soros is there among provocateurs, too.”

Last February, Kavala was acquitted by an Istanbul court for charges of plotting to overthrow the government during the Gezi Park protests in 2013 but was immediately detained again on charges of espionage. Earlier this month, a Turkish court declined Kavala’s request for release, combining the two cases against him after an appeals court overturned the Gezi-related verdict.

In a statement last week, the US Department of State, under Joe Biden’s new administration, urged Turkey to release Kavala, echoing a 2019 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights.

“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,” the announcement read.

In another crackdown on political dissent yesterday, Turkish police detained more than 700 people, including members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), on charges related to the killing of 13 Turkish captives in northern Iraq. The government has repeatedly accused HDP of links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is said to have executed Turkish police and military personnel who had been seized in 2015 and 2016. In his Friday remarks, Erdoğan also accused HDP politicians of involvement in the protests at Boğaziçi University.

Kavala’s various initiatives to support cultural memory projects for Kurds, Armenians, Yazidis, and other marginalized groups in Turkey have long made Anadolu Kültür a target of government scrutiny. In 2002, the organization also founded an arts center in the predominately Kurdish city of Diyarbakır. In addition, Kavala worked to foster cultural ties with Armenia, directly opposing regulations by the Turkish government, which continues to deny the Armenian Genocide.

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual...