Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s criminalisation of the massive anti-government protests of 2013 were geared towards creating precedent that can be used against other social movements, Osman Kavala said in a written interview conducted via post from his prison cell.
“I was arrested on two separate charges in 2017, organising the Gezi protests and participating in the 15 July attempted coup. They aimed to tie the two together,” Kavala told T24. “That failed, then they tried to criminalise Gezi with the fiction that it was a staged uprising planned by foreign powers.”
A businessman and prominent figure in Turkey’s civil society, Kavala’s Open Society Foundation has been funding the arts and several grassroots activist movements in the country, and stands accused of engendering “separatist sentiment and animosity” among Kurdish and Armenian citizens of Turkey.
“This claim that the artistic expression of problems and experiences of Kurds and Armenians weakens their ties to the state represents an ideological view that these citizens do not have their own free will,” Kavala said.
Kavala’s other venture, the foundation Anadolu Kültür, has been funding an arts centre in Diyarbakır (Amed), the largest Kurdish-majority province in Turkey. “All activities of the Diyarbakır Centre for Arts happened in plain view, and published on the website. Those who prepared the indictment looked at Anadolu Kültür’s website and unearthed this secret conspiracy that no authorities had noticed in the past 20 years,” Kavala said.
Kavala “has not been involved in any official procedures himself in order to not blow his cover, despite actively participating in the decision making and financial support processes in the Gezi Park incidents,” Turkey’s Court of Cassation argued in its ruling on Kavala’s fate.
The Gezi Park protests, named after the small urban park in central Istanbul that was threatened by a government-backed gentrification project, took the country by storm a decade ago, drawing more than four million people to the streets in sustained demonstrations and an occupation of the park over the course of months against police brutality and government oppression of the opposition. It received widespread support from Kurds throughout the country as well, all the while a peace process between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) continued.
“They have failed to establish that there is an entity that acts as an organisation to take down the government that has its own hierarchic structures. The illegal phone taps prove that I have nothing to do with organising any massive protest, let alone an attempt to topple the government,” Kavala said. “When there is no organisation, there is no organisation leader. So they made up this fantastical concept of mentorship.”
“As far as I understand, the government wishes the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) also accepted the thesis that Gezi was an uprising, and therefore excused the Turkish judiciary treating the indictment as evidence. When the court does not do that, they think ECHR is acting in a political manner,” Kavala said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan had accused the top European court and EU member states of “politicising a domestic matter” via their support for Kavala and popular Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş, who have both been subject to ECHR rulings for immediate release.
“When an issue kicks off street protests in Berlin and with members of certain European parliaments organising to put political pressure on Turkey, that is a problem,” Fidan said in November. “When they politicise a case, the response will also be political.”
By ignoring the ECHR’s rulings for the immediate release of Kavala and Demirtaş, Turkey has triggered the Council of Europe’s infringement proceedings and risks losing its membership in the top European body that it was a founding member in.
“Not implementing ECHR rulings means a denial of the binding nature of the law that protects human rights, both in the European Convention on Human Rights and our own constitution. The rising influence of politics over the judiciary and the precedence of political priority over legal norms among members of the judiciary are highly concerning,” Kavala said.