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While Osman Kavala is in prison, we are all behind bars

The Turkish activist is being punished for working for peace and democracy. It’s a tragedy for him, but for the rest of us too

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
27 April 2022, 10.06am
Osman Kavala speaking at the European Parliament headquarters in Brussels in 2014.
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PA Images

My friend Osman Kavala has just been sentenced to spend the rest of his lifetime in prison. Why? For being a person who has worked for democracy and peaceful relations between people of different faiths and backgrounds. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sees him for what he is, an outstanding representative of their country’s civil society and a living repudiation of his despotism. So he has insisted on Osman being sentenced, despite a growing international outcry.

I won’t write about his ‘case’. There is plenty of coverage of this elsewhere and I hope there is more of it and that it doesn’t stop until Erdoğan falls and Osman is freed. I protested when he was first jailed four-and a half years ago, on preposterous charges that were dismissed only to be replaced by ones even more absurd. With others, I helped create a short ‘Lockdown Opera’ composed by Nigel Osborne, which brings the scandal to our computer screens as it sets Osman’s profound humanity to music.

We are all bodily people. When the door clangs behind you and you are confined to your cell, as Osman is now, you experience the binary difference between being imprisoned and being free.

But we are all, also, more than our bodily selves. We have a life force and a love of being that is not easily trapped. Friends can write to Osman through his lawyer. Recently, in place of a letter, I sent him my article on Ukraine from openDemocracy and The Nation called ‘After Putin’. He wrote back that “Putin must be defeated!” but felt that “systematic sanctions” would achieve this rather than arming the Ukrainians, as I argue.

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Suddenly, the discussions that I’ve had with him since the 1980s, the same care and the way he seeks a balanced judgement, came to life. Despite his loss of liberty, Osman is free in spirit and remains true to himself.

At the same time, although at liberty here in England, part of me is jailed.

And not just because my personal friend is locked in a small cell without just cause. But also because many others are.

I think in particular of Julian Assange, held in solitary confinement in the UK’s Belmarsh prison, facing deportation and jail in the US to join the two million suffering its system of racist incarceration.

I think in particular of Alexei Navalny, Putin’s brave opponent, tweeting through his lawyer his denunciation of the ‘mad czar’s’ invasion of Ukraine.

I think in particular of Maria Kalesnikava and Sergei Tikhanovsky, who along with other representatives of the democratic opposition in Belarus are now tortured and jailed in appalling conditions.

I think with fury of the 4,600 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails who seek freedom for their country.

I think with something close to despair of the Uyghurs, an entire people imprisoned by the so-called People’s Republic of China.

And I think of the many others in Erdogan’s Turkish jails less famous than Osman Kavala.

Freedom is intensely personal. Yet it is not a selfish experience. It means nothing without others being free: those close to us, those who are our friends, and those more distant who in fighting for their liberty secure our own.

This is why while anyone, anywhere is unjustly jailed, part of all of us is behind bars.

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