Osman Kavala (image courtesy Free Osman Kavala Campaign)

Osman Kavala, a Turkish businessman, activist, and arts philanthropist, was sentenced to life in prison without parole in Istanbul today, April 25. Since October 2017, he has been held without conviction in the high-security Silivri prison and has spent years in solitary confinement.

Kavala launched the nonprofit arts center Anadolu Kültür in Istanbul in 2002. Much of his work focuses on cultural heritage projects centering Armenians and other historically and currently persecuted and marginalized groups in Turkey. Kavala’s recognition of the Armenian genocide is at odds with the Turkish government’s official narrative: Turkey does not acknowledge the genocide of 1915-16, in which around 1.5 million Armenians were killed.

In 2017, Kavala was detained at an Istanbul airport for his alleged implication in the 2013 anti-government Gezi Park protests. He was then accused of involvement in the 2016 coup attempt, conducted by a faction of the Turkish military. In February 2020, a Turkish court acquitted Kavala of the Gezi Park charges, but he was immediately detained again — this time on allegations of espionage. The decision to acquit Kavala of the Gezi Park charges was overturned, and today’s sentence hinges on the accusation that he financially sponsored the protests.

A 2019 European Court of Human Rights ruling declared a lack of “facts, information, or evidence” for Kavala’s detainment and called his imprisonment politically motivated, adding that Turkey’s actions against Kavala had a “chilling effect on society.”

The international community has decried Kavala’s imprisonment. Last year, the United States Department of State called for his immediate release, and this February, the Council of Europe voted to begin infringement proceedings against Turkey over its “arbitrary detention” of Kavala (only the second time the council has evoked this proceeding).

In a statement published today, Amnesty International (AI) Europe Director Nils Muižnieks called the life sentence a “travesty of justice of spectacular proportions” that “defies all logic.”

“This verdict deals a devastating blow not only to Osman Kavala, his co-defendants and their families, but to everyone who believes in justice and human rights activism in Turkey and beyond,” Muižnieks said.

Osman Kavala at the Armenian Genocide centennial commemoration in Istanbul in 2015 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Seven co-defendants, also convicted of their involvement in the 2013 Gezi Park protests, were sentenced to 18 years in prison today. Most of these activists work for Anadolu Kültür, Kavala’s organization, or are artists themselves. They are Hakan Altınay, an executive board member of Anadolu Kültür; Can Atalay, a lawyer who focuses on housing justice and urban planning; Yiğit Ali Ekmekçi, deputy chair of Anadolu Kültür; Tayfun Kahraman, an academic and urban planner; filmmaker Mine Özerden; Çiğdem Mater Utku, a film producer and journalist; and architect Mücella Yapıcı.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has increasingly cracked down on dissent in Turkey, silencing opposition leaders and independent media. Last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Turkey the sixth worst jailer of journalists, an improvement from past years’ rankings partially because some journalists are still awaiting trial. The CPJ also reported that the government’s persecution of members of the press after the 2016 coup attempt “effectively eradicated the country’s mainstream media and prompted many journalists to leave the profession.” In 2017, Erdoğan gave himself near-dictatorial power through a constitutional referendum.

Erdoğan has singled out Kavala in the past. Last October he declared Western ambassadors critical of Kavala’s imprisonment unwelcome. He also called Kavala “Soros scum,” accusing him of working with billionaire philanthropist George Soros in orchestrating the Gezi Park protests.

“This politically motivated charade has already seen Osman Kavala arbitrarily imprisoned for more than four-and-a-half years over his civil society activism,” Muižnieks said. “We continue to call for Osman Kavala’s and his co-defendants’ immediate release as they appeal these draconian verdicts.”

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.