ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Philanthropist Osman Kavala, the man dragged into a diplomatic spat between Ankara and its Western allies last month, played a big role developing Turkish civil society before being jailed in 2017 on a charge of seeking to overthrow the government.
On Friday, he faces his first court hearing since a call by Western countries for his release triggered a threat from President Tayyip Erdogan to expel their ambassadors.
Kavala, 64, has been involved in numerous civil society projects over the decades, from a publishing house that aimed to foster social change after Turkey’s 1980 coup to boosting culture through his Anadolu Kultur organisation.
That work came to an abrupt halt on Oct. 18, 2017, when he was detained at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. Two weeks later he was jailed pending trial, accused of attempting to oust the government by force – a charge carrying a life sentence.
Since then he has been held in Silivri prison, near Istanbul, and is being tried in a case which has attracted growing support from foreign officials and human rights groups.
On the fourth anniversary of his arrest, the U.S. ambassador and nine others called in a joint statement for his “urgent release” and a just and speedy resolution to his case.
Erdogan responded by demanding their expulsion and a full-blown diplomatic crisis was only averted when the embassies issued statements saying they abide by diplomatic conventions on non-interference. Erdogan then backed down.
Speaking before the furore pushed him onto the international news agenda, Kavala said foreign interest in his case had boosted his morale but also caused him sorrow.
“It is extremely saddening to see that foreign institutions and politicians attach more importance to your right to live freely than public officials in your own country,” he said in answer to Reuters’ written questions in March.
Kavala is accused of financing nationwide protests in 2013 that were triggered by plans to redevelop Istanbul’s Gezi Park, and also of involvement in a failed coup in 2016. He denies the charges.
His plight is far removed from the world he grew up in. Graduating from Manchester University in England with an economics degree in 1982, Kavala then took over management of family companies.
After participating in relief work following a devastating 1999 earthquake he quit business to focus on civil society work.
In 2002 he set up Anadolu Kultur, supporting projects in underdeveloped parts of Turkey, notably the mainly Kurdish southeast.
‘MOST IMPORTANT LINK’
Seeking to explain why he was targeted by prosecutors, he said authorities sought to portray the Gezi protests as a plot organised 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 links to (Soros’s) Open Society Foundation they decided I had the right qualities for this role,” he said.
Critics say Turkey’s judiciary has been exploited to punish Erdogan’s opponents under a crackdown following the 2016 coup attempt. The government says the judiciary is independent.
Erdogan has targeted Kavala in speeches, calling him a “Soros leftover” and scorning foreigners who support him.
Veteran journalist Kadri Gursel has described Kavala in a website column as “the most important link between Turkey’s civil society and the outside world”.
Kavala said four years in prison had taken a heavy personal toll on him and his family.
“While I’ve been in prison I’ve lost some of my close friends. These are things that cannot be recovered,” he said. “They make the injustice feel like persecution.”
(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Gareth Jones)