Philanthropist Osman Kavala, the man embroiled in a diplomatic row between Ankara and its Western allies last month, played a big role in the development of Turkish civil society before being jailed in 2017 for seeking to overthrow the government .
On Friday, he faces his first court hearing since a call from Western countries for his release sparked a threat from President Tayyip Erdogan to expel their ambassadors. Kavala, 64, has been involved in many civil society projects over the decades, from a publishing house that aimed to foster social change after the 1980 coup in Turkey to promoting the culture through its organization Anadolu Kultur.
This work was abruptly stopped on October 18, 2017, when he was detained at Istanbul AtatÃ¼rk Airport. Two weeks later he was jailed awaiting trial on charges of attempting to overthrow the government by force – a charge carrying a life sentence. Since then, he has been held in Silivri prison, near Istanbul, and is on trial in a case that has garnered growing support from foreign officials and human rights groups.
On the fourth anniversary of his arrest, the US ambassador and nine others called in a joint statement for his “urgent release” and a just and speedy resolution of his case. Erdogan responded by demanding their expulsion and a real diplomatic crisis was only averted when the embassies issued statements saying they were respecting diplomatic covenants on non-interference. Erdogan then backed down.
Speaking before fury put him on the international news agenda, Kavala said foreign interest in his case had lifted his spirits but also caused him grief. “It is extremely sad that foreign institutions and politicians attach more importance to your right to live freely than public officials in your own country,” he said in response to written questions from Reuters in March. .
Kavala is accused of funding nationwide protests in 2013 that were sparked by plans to redevelop Istanbul’s Gezi Park, and also of participating in a failed coup in 2016. He denies the accusations. His fate is far removed from the world in which he grew up. Graduated from the University of Manchester in England with a degree in economics in 1982, Kavala then took over the management of family businesses.
After participating in relief work following a devastating earthquake in 1999, he left the company to focus on civil society work. In 2002, he created Anadolu Kultur, supporting projects in underdeveloped regions of Turkey, notably the predominantly Kurdish southeast.
“THE MOST IMPORTANT LINK” Seeking to explain why he was targeted by prosecutors, he said authorities sought to present the Gezi protests as a plot organized by foreign forces. In doing so, they linked them to billionaire financier George Soros.
“Because my office was next to Gezi Park and I went there, and because I had ties to the Open Society Foundation (de Soros), they decided that I had the right qualities for this role, âhe said. Critics say Turkish justice has been exploited to punish Erdogan’s opponents in a crackdown following the 2016 coup attempt. The government says the judiciary is independent.
Erdogan has targeted Kavala in speeches, calling him “the remnant of Soros” and despising the outsiders who support him. Veteran journalist Kadri Gursel described Kavala in a column on his website as “the most important link between Turkish civil society and the outside world”.
Kavala said four years in prison took a heavy personal toll on him and his family. âWhile I was in prison, I lost some of my close friends. These are things that cannot be recovered,â he said. âThey make injustice look like persecution.
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