Turkey's political prisoners: the case of Osman Kavala

With a court ruling against his release from detention last Tuesday, businessman and rights activist Osman Kavala has been sentenced to welcome a third new year in jail. 

Following his arrest in October 2017, Kavala was put in a Kafkaesque position of more than a year of imprisonment without a charge. The indictment, when it eventually emerged, accused Kavala of orchestrating the organisation of the anti-government Gezi Park protests back in 2013. While just one of many indicted, Kavala is the only defendant in detention in the Gezi Park trial. 

The court ruling, which extends Kavala’s two years-long remand in custody without a committal, defies a recent European Human Rights Court (ECHR) decision for his immediate release, and has generated widespread comment, including not surprisingly from the defendant himself.

“I hope that the continuation of my imprisonment will contribute to a better understanding of the unlawfulness in the judiciary and the origins of that,” Kavala said as the ruling was handed down.

Embedded in this statement is the accusation that the judiciary has been reduced to a political tool for the persecution of the opposition. Other prominent examples of such malicious practice include the sustained imprisonments of Selahattin Demirtaş, the former leader of the pro-Kurdish Democratic People’s Party (HDP) and author Ahmet Altan, despite recent rulings by the Constitutional Court and ECtHR mandating their release.

The cases of Kavala, Demirtaş and Altan are just three of the best known of hundreds of ongoing instances of injustice to which all shades of political opposition are currently subject. Lawyers point out that although political intervention into judicial processes is not a new phenomenon in Turkish politics, the current climate where they claim the president explicitly plays the role of judge, jury and the executioner, is stereotypical of oppressive regimes and unprecedented in Turkey. This tendency, they warn, jeopardises Turkey’s commitment to international accords and democratic standards.

The high price of investment in culture, democracy and civil society

Born in 1957 in Paris as the son of an upper-class family, Kavala studied economics at the University of Manchester. Following his father’s death in 1982, he took over the family business – Kavala Companies – which operated in the mining and realty sectors. Soon after taking the helm, Osman Kavala decided to invest in the cultural sector and founded the prestigious İletişim publishing house in 1983, which in a short time became a major source of intellectual nutrition by publishing high quality literary, theoretical and academic books.

During the 2000s, Kavala focused his activities on the flourishing civil society organizations to become a prominent actor in the democratic intercultural dialogue. He presided over or held important positions on the boards of directors of many non-government organisations, all renowned for defending human rights and fostering reconciliation between social partners. These organisations included the Turkish History Foundation, Helsinki Citizens Association, Turkish Cinema and Audiovisual Foundation, the Turkish Foundation for Social and Economic Studies (TESEV), the Diyarbakır House of Culture and Research Institute. 

Since 2002, Kavala has been a founding director of the Anatolian Cultural Association, which aims to unite the entrepreneurial and art worlds to foster cultural and artistic exchanges between the country’s various regions as well as other countries. The Anatolian Cultural Association’s commitment to an open and plural idea of identity and citizenship that includes the country’s cultural identities led to the initiation of many activities to encourage dialogue between the Turks and the Armenians and to enhance the artistic and cultural heritage in the predominantly Kurdish inhabited south-east of the country.

Another field in which Kavala has been active is cultural heritage. The Cultural Heritage Foundation, of which he is a founder, contributes to the conservation and restoration of the damaged and endangered properties and assets around the country.

Such civil activism for cultural plurality and democratisation would be portrayed by President Erdoğan as evidence of being the “Soros of Turkey,” referring to the Hungarian-American philanthropist businessman George Soros. Insinuating an international conspiracy against his rule, Erdoğan also stated that “all connections have surfaced.” These presidential comments came in the wake of Kavala’s arrest, which he claims directed the court to decide on his detention. 

Mainstream media dance to the President’s tune in a campaign of defamation, which aims to delegitimaize and criminalize all the above listed democratic civil activities. The building he owns, known as Cezayir, where a café-restaurant, meeting halls and function rooms are located, is referred to as “the headquarters of illegal organisations” run by “the darkest man of Turkey”.

Political prisoners as weathervanes of Turkey’s future

As much as indicating the rather dangerous emergence of a judicio-political complex, the Kavala case – along with the trials of Demirtaş and Altan –could also be viewed as the repetition of a structural function inherent to Turkey’s political history: that the portrait of political prisoners of each successive era mirrors the next generation of economic, cultural and political hegemony. This is due to the sustained ideological rigidity of Turkey’s political order, regardless of the type of the regime or ruling ideology in charge.

Looking back over the history of modernisation, Ottoman jails of late 19th century were filled with the Young Turks. Those who managed to escape the then Sultan Abdulhamid’s persecution were exiled to Paris, Vienna and London. Then, with the turn of the century, the Young Turks –reincarnated in the form of Committee of Union and Progress (Ittihad ve Terakki) – would introduce constitutional rule, paving the way for their Kemalist offspring’s abolition of the sultanate and the founding of the Turkish republic. 

Kemalists in turn would systematically persecute the communists, whom they viewed not as the progressive critics of their rule, which they were, but as the arch-rivals of Kemalism. The political and cultural losses of this rigid hostile approach are illustrated in the tragedy of two literary figures of the time: Sabahattin Ali, the literary star of the 1930s, whose head was caved in by a government agent while trying to escape to Bulgaria, and the world-famous poet Nazım Hikmet who, after thirteen years of imprisonment, had to emigrate to Russia. 

In line with zeitgeist, not the communists but the centre-right Democrat Party would take over from the Kemalists in 1950, which allied Turkey with the US-led western bloc and NATO. The cold war mentality that dominated the Turkish state of the time stigmatised the left even further. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, thousands of left leaning youths, politicians and trade unionists were arrested, tortured and imprisoned. Decades of persecution would yield their fruit not in the total eradication of the left but the conventionally Kemalist CHP’s metamorphosis into a centre-left party, opening to socialism. After decades of fluctuation, the CHP seems to have finally stabilised with a social democratic program with liberal inclinations towards Muslim and Kurdish identity claims. 

1990s political agenda would largely be determined by the rivalry between the secular establishment and Islamic revival. The 1997 secularist military intervention imprisoned hundreds of pro-Islamists, including the current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on political charges. In turn, the 2000s and the decade we are about to finish witnessed the rule of the pro-Islamist political current in Turkey.

Holding up a mirror to the future

It is therefore necessary to look carefully at the posture of the political prisoners of our time in order to envisage the country’s near future. 

Selahattin Demirtaş represents the left leaning political hegemony of the 2020s, in which the solution of the Kurdish question would come to the fore as in Marx’s famous motto: “A people that oppress another cannot be free”.

Secondly, there are liberal values, including primarily the spatial and temporal freedom of the individual, as represented in Ahmet Altan’s literary and journalistic work, would be a significant part of the next generation’s cultural hegemony. 

And finally there is responsible business, that is a type of entrepreneurship sensitive to claims of social justice and environmental issues, and supportive of civil society initiatives, the nodal point of which is materialized in Osman Kavala’s personality.

The rigid structure of Turkey’s social and political order, in which not the accommodation but exclusion of progressive criticism is the rule, perversely continues to allow observers to read the country’s near future through its major inconsistency, that is, its political prisoners.