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Turkish government trying to blame Gezi Park protest on ‘foreign actors’, says imprisoned civil society leader

Osman Kavala says that he has been targeted by the government because of his involvement in civil society.

Sirin Payzin
19 July 2019
Osman Kavala speaking at the European Parliament headquarters in Brussels in 2014.
Osman Kavala speaking at the European Parliament headquarters in Brussels in 2014.
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PA Images

In 2013, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Istanbul to protest government plans to build over one of the capital’s last remaining parks. What began as a demonstration over the loss of green space, however, soon spiraled into something far larger.

The excessive police response to the protests galvanised anger at the increasing authoritarianism of then prime minister – and now president – Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A wave of unrest erupted across Turkey.

Just over a fortnight into the peaceful occupation of the park, protesters were violently evicted by police: 22 people were killed and more than 8,000 were injured.

Last month, the trial of 16 people accused of organising and financing the protests and “attempting to overthrow the government” began in Istanbul. The indictment also alleges that philanthropist George Soros was behind the conspiracy.

Among those on trial is Turkish businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala, who has been in detention since his arrest in 2017. It took over a year for his indictment to be issued. During that time, neither Kavala nor his lawyers were able to find out what he was accused of.

At a hearing on Thursday, judges ruled to continue his detention. A new trial date has been set for October. Kavala’s lawyers and other defendants, who were subsequently added to the case, say that the 657-page indictment contains no concrete evidence.

Amnesty International’s Andrew Gardner said, “The decision to keep Osman Kavala in pre-trial detention is outrageous but not surprising. It exposes yet again, how Turkey’s judicial system has been weaponised in order to target legitimate civil society activities and jail people without a shred of evidence.”

Kavala has long been a figurehead of Turkish civil society. He has supported arts and culture events in Diyarbakır, a focal point in the conflict between the Turkish state and various Kurdish groups. He has also organised meetings on the Kurdish–Turkish peace process, democratisation and refugee rights.

During his 21-month detention, Kavala has largely stayed quiet, preferring to “let civil society speak for me”. But prior to his second hearing this week, I was able to send him some questions to answer.

At the first hearing, the tribunal decided to continue your detention. How do you evaluate this decision? Surprised?

I can't say I'm surprised. Although there is no reason for me to remain under arrest, I did not expect that both Yiğit Aksakoğlu [another prominent figure in Turkish civil society] and myself would be released in the first hearing. Well, I'm the number one defendant in this case.

On the day your case began, President Erdoğan re-targeted Gezi and its participants. What is being done? Do you think the court has ruled under pressure?

From time to time, the president says something blaming the Gezi events and its participants. As you know, there were also statements that targeted me directly. These statements may have had an impact on the accusations against me during the preparation of the indictment. In the indictment, the statements of politicians about Soros were taken as fact and a similar process might have taken place for me. However, I don't think there is a relationship between Erdoğan’s last statement about Gezi and the ruling.

Do you think the public has shown sufficient interest in your case?

After my arrest, I published critical articles in the newspapers about the indictment and my situation was mentioned in several television programs. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu [leader of the opposition Republican People's Party] has spoken about my arrest. Rights defenders and artists expressed their demands for my release. During this period, people were reluctant to express criticism [of the case] in the public sphere and thought that doing so would endanger themselves or their institutions. It is not realistic to expect more attention to this case during such widespread lawlessness. It would also be uncomfortable for me to focus on this case in the absence of a strong public response to other cases.

Your friends, representatives from international institutions, participants in Gezi and a large group of lawyers came to support you in the courtroom. How did you feel when you walked in?

I felt mixed things. After being used to living alone in your room for 20 months, you are in a very different place when confronted with a government institution. When I stepped up the stairs to the hall, I first saw the group of lawyers who came to support me. In their robes, the lawyers appeared like lifeguards there to prevent me from getting lost in the labyrinths of laws in that great space. Right after, I heard the applause coming from behind me. Applause is anonymous, but for me it was like a special voice, calling out, confirming that my wife, family, friends were there. The first things I saw and heard prevented me from feeling alienation in that space, causing me to feel some kind of trust.

Why is this case aimed at you?

I don't have the information to answer that question. But in the context of the Gezi protests, I can make a deduction. The claim that the Gezi events were organised and financed by foreign actors is telling. This is, of course, aimed at discrediting protesters and solidarity with protesters. However, there has been no evidence to support these claims for years. As a result they have used George Soros as a scapegoat. Pointing the finger at Soros can be convincing even without evidence, because there is a widespread belief that he supports popular movements against governments in various countries.

It's not surprising that I was accused in this scenario. I am on the board of directors of the Open Society Foundation (OSF) [a grantmaking network founded by George Soros] and also participated in the Gezi protests. Anadolu Kültür [a Turkish not-for-profit organisation], of which I am the chairman of the board, receives support from OSF for various projects and supports civil society initiatives. When I'm involved, the fiction is complete! Shortly before I was taken into custody, two long articles about me were published on the website of an organisation called Boğaz Boğaziçi Global İlişkiler ücut. With the help of infographics, I was told that I was in a dark relationship with Soros.

How many times have you read the indictment?

I've read it twice and I've read more about myself – the indictment has an annex of 8,763 pages. There are important documents among them. I was able to see these with the help of my lawyers.

Did you write your defense yourself?

I wrote it myself, but my lawyers have been a great support.

The remarkable oddity in the indictment is that George Soros, who allegedly planned and financed the protest, was not among the suspects, and no effort was made to take his statement. How do you interpret this contradiction?

In my opinion, this shows that the fiction in the indictment was not supported by concrete evidence, was not prepared with the belief that it was correct, and was written as an assumption in line with political messages.

What is your relationship with Soros? Can you tell the public more clearly?

I was a board member of Open Society Foundations. When George Soros visited our country, I had meetings with other board members. I have never had a different status or responsibility on the board of the foundation. I respect Soros. Our views overlap on issues such as the proper functioning of legal institutions, the protection and extension of civil rights, the support of civil society organizations and rights defenders, and immigration policies. However, my views on egalitarian policies in the social and economic fields are different. I have also been critical of the activities of the Open Society Foundations in some countries.

You said in your defense that during the protests you “participated in a meeting with members of the Government. By talking to government officials, I cannot understand how it can be explained that someone who is trying to reach a compromise between them and those participating in the protest is preparing the ground for a coup”. What do you attribute to the silence of government officials in the face of this? Who do you reproach?

I said this to emphasise the fallacy of the indictment. I did not expect a supportive message from government officials. A similar situation applies to members of the Taksim Solidarity meeting with the Prime Minister. Tayfun Kahraman pointed out the same irrationality in his defense.

How do you think the case will proceed? What are your expectations?

My expectation is, of course, that all those on trial will be acquitted of the charges against them. But that doesn't mean I'm getting out of prison. After my arrest, the charge of supporting the July 15 coup attempt, which had no basis, was kept as a separate investigation file, and the decision to arrest me was oddly split between the two files. We have no information about this second file – the indictment has not been released.

What have the conditions been like in prison?

Before coming to Silivri, I stayed in a half-sized cell for two weeks. I shared it with four people for about a week. Those days were not easy. I'm trying to keep myself away from what's happened to me in my room by reading, thinking, dreaming. The most difficult thing was going to hospital in handcuffs led by police. Everyone in the hospital must have been wondering what evil this guy has done.

A clichéd question, but what do you miss most?

I'm going to give you a clichéd answer. I miss being with my wife, family, friends, I miss my house, I miss touching the soil, the trees, the plants.

Are there things you regret when you look back?

Of course there are a lot of things. When you enter prison at the age of 60, you inevitably recount your life. Solitude provides a suitable environment for this. But the things I regret have nothing to do with the crimes against me.

What are your long-term plans? Will you continue to work for civil society after your release?

I want to continue working for civil society. I think it will be important to realise projects that contribute to a better understanding of basic legal norms and increase the sensitivity of justice with the help of art.

What do you think about Ekrem İmamoğlu winning the Istanbul mayoral election and the support given to him?

I thought Ekrem İmamoğlu would win the election for the second time, but I did not expect such a big difference in votes. It was highly debated how the positive energy that emerged in Gezi would contribute to local politics. Imamoglu has a sensitivity, perspective and problem-solving ability to understand Gezi's messages. For this reason, I see him as a very suitable mayor for the post-Gezi period.


Disclaimer: openDemocracy has received funding from Open Society Foundations. However, OSF was not involved in the publication of this article.

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