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Osman Kavala.
Osman Kavala.

Turkish Arts Philanthropist Osman Kavala Approaches Thousandth Day in Prison

Turkish cultural workers are renewing their demands for the release of Osman Kavala, a businessman and major arts supporter who was imprisoned for alleged conspiracy in a violent plot to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime. Kavala’s advocates include many of the country’s arts leaders, Amnesty International, and the European Court of Human Rights, which has officially called for his immediate release. They say the government is persecuting Kavala for lawful activities undertaken as a human rights defender. After serving two and a half years on allegations of helping to instigate the Gezi Park demonstrations in 2013, Kavala was acquitted on February 18 of this year only to be arrested and recharged a day later for connections to a thwarted coup in 2016.

As the founder of the Istanbul nonprofit art center Anadolu Kültür, Kavala is a central figure in Turkey’s culture scene. In addition to hosting seminars, exhibitions, and publishing projects, he opened an arts center in Diyarbakir, the spiritual capital of Turkish Kurds; has supported cultural memory projects for Armenians, Kurds, Yazidis, and other marginalized communities; and has fostered diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia. Through Anadolu Kültür, he later created Depo Istanbul, an independent art space as a platform for critical voices.

In January 2019, the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art issued a statement calling for Kavala’s release and leading cultural figures in Istanbul have waged a campaign to “Free Osman Kavala.” Artists also maintain an Instagram account that tallies each day he spends in prison; Monday, July 27, will mark one thousand.

Dropped from Turkish penal codes 309 and 312—which charged him with attempting to abolish the government—Kavala was recharged this March under code 328 for espionage, an accusation that has been leveled against many high-profile journalists and academics following the failed 2016 coup. Several artists have been swept into the crackdown on perceived dissidents, including Kurdish performance artist Fatos Irwin, who was released this March after three years spent in prison for “resisting the police,” and Zehra Doğan, a journalist and artist who was imprisoned for two years and nine months for painting the military destruction of a Kurdish town in Nusaybin.

On July 23, PEN America released an open letter to the US Department of State urging the American government to publicly call for Kavala’s freedom. “Kavala’s case is emblematic of the thousands of people arbitrarily detained in Turkish prisons in the context of politically motivated prosecutions, simply for exercising their rights to peaceful opposition and freedom of expression,” reads the letter, which is signed by Amnesty International USA, Freedom House, PEN America, and the Project on Middle East Democracy. “A US statement calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Kavala would send a strong message to the Turkish government that the United States views human rights in Turkey as a priority.”