BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
It is widely known that the Turkish government deprives the rights of minorities living in the country, whether they are Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, Jews or Kurds. However, the Turks who are the overwhelming majority of the public are the biggest victims of the abuses of the Turkish authorities. Tens of thousands of innocent Turks have been jailed under false pretenses.
One prominent example of such inhuman treatment is Osman Kavala, a Turkish businessman, philanthropist and human rights activist who has been jailed on trumped-up charges twice. Last February he was released from jail for supposedly trying to overthrow the government and then rearrested the same day before he could be released.
Kavala’s imprisonment made headlines around the world. The European Court of Human Rights ruled last December that Turkey had jailed him without reasonable cause. “His detention was intended to punish him as a critic of the Government to reduce him to silence as an NGO [non-governmental organization] activist and human-rights defender, to dissuade others from engaging in such activities and to paralyze civil society in the country.” The sinister reason Kavala was released from jail and rearrested the same day was to temporarily comply with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights and then jail him under new charges which would keep in prison several more years while Kavala’s lawyers contest the new charges in Turkish courts and then in the European Court of Human Rights.
On April 9, 2020, the New York Times published a lengthy article by Carlotta Gall titled, “From Prominent Turkish Philanthropist to Political Prisoner.” Gall wrote: “Mr. Kavala has become the most prominent political prisoner in Turkey, and as he himself ruefully acknowledged after his rearrest, his case is a prime example of the state of injustice in Turkey today under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His case is just one of half a million prosecutions underway amid a government crackdown since an attempted coup in 2016, but it is one of the most confounding. Best known for his good deeds, he has been variously accused of espionage, links to terrorist groups, and trying to overthrow the government. Even seasoned lawyers, well used to decades of political trials in Turkey, have described the various charges against him as ‘ridiculous.’”
Kavala studied economics at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom and started work on his doctorate at the New York School for Social Research in New York, but interrupted his studies when his father died in 1982.
Kavala then got involved in defending human rights. He founded Anadolu Kultur, an organization that supports art and cultural collaboration. Gall reported that “he supported an arts space in Diyarbakir, the biggest Kurdish city in the southeast; cultural memory projects for Yazidis, Kurds, Armenians and other minorities; and a program to encourage a normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia. … He became one of the leading philanthropists in the country, well known among embassies and international donors and an energetic supporter of civic and human rights groups.”
Gall stated that Kavala was jailed because “he represents the leftist-leaning, secular elite, which in Turkey’s polarized society is the opposite of the president and his supporters. They are from religiously conservative, Islamist circles that were long sidelined from power. ‘Osman represents another culture,’ said Asena Gunal, who runs his flagship organization, Anadolu Kultur. ‘Someone who is open, cultured, who speaks English, can talk to foreigners, active in society; something they see as dangerous.’ As he spent 16 months in detention without knowing the charges against him, the pro-government news media and even Mr. Erdogan himself accused him of nefarious connections, including being part of a Jewish conspiracy led by Mr. Soros. Some analysts say that his work with Armenians and Kurds is hated by elements in Turkey’s security establishment.”
Kavala has been urging the Turkish government to recognize the Armenian Genocide. He visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan on April 24, 2016. He told News.am: “First of all, there has to be a sincere intention to look at history, to look at what had happened, to open up the archives properly, and to have a very sincere dialogue with the Armenians. Fortunately, there are some steps, but we still can’t see that at the political level.”
In an interview with Civilnet, a website in Armenia, Kavala praised the German Parliament’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide “as an example of a healthy cross-party consensus reviewing the darker chapters of national history.” Kavala also attended the reopening of the Sourp Giragos Armenian Church in Diyarbekir after its renovation.
However, despite his liberal and leftist leanings, Kavala was quick to dodge Armenian demands from Turkey to return to Armenians their historic lands. In December 2007, I had quoted him in my column, “Turkey Could Gain More Than Armenians by Acknowledging the Genocide,” stating that “it is not possible to dismiss the issue of compensation so readily.” Kavala responded by sending me an email stating: “I don’t think that, ‘land return’ is a legitimate demand which can be taken seriously. Bringing it up would discredit the arguments for justice and reconciliation.” He naively suggested that we should leave “the ‘land issue’ in the hands of God,” adding that he would happy to meet with me to talk about this issue.
Nevertheless, the civilized world should speak out for the immediate release of Kavala, one of the many innocent victims of Pres. Erdogan.