Turkish Arts Philanthropist Osman Kavala Sentenced to Life in Prison

Activist and businessman Osman Kavala, a major supporter of Turkish arts and culture, on April 25 was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole on charges of “attempting to overthrow the government.” The ruling was handed down by Istanbul’s 13th Heavy Penal Court under the auspices of the government of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which imprisoned him in 2017 for alleged conspiracy in the 2016 plot to overthrow the regime. Since that time, he had been held in the high-security Silvri Prison without conviction, spending much of his time in solitary confinement. His treatment has sparked global outrage, with the European Court of Human Rights citing insufficient evidence against him and casting his arrest as an effort to “silence him and dissuade other human rights defenders.” Among those who called for his release during his long internment were the ambassadors of ten Western countries as well as the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art, and leading cultural figures in Istanbul, who waged a campaign to “Free Osman Kavala.”

The founder of the Istanbul nonprofit art center Anadolu Kültür and the creator of Depo Istanbul, an independent art space serving as a platform for critical voices, the Paris-born Kavala had long been a central figure in in the Turkish cultural scene. Erdoğan’s court originally charged him with financing and fomenting the protests that rocked the country in 2013, specifically the Gezi Park demonstrations. After serving two and a half years, Osman was acquitted in February 2020, then rearrested the following day and a month later was charged with espionage under article 328 of the Turkish Penal Code, relating to the securing of “information that, due to its nature, must be kept confidential for reasons relating to the security or domestic or foreign political interests of the State, for the purpose of political or military espionage.” Since the failed 2016 coup, the article has been used as a pretext to level charges against numerous high-profile journalists and academics.

The verdict was delivered before a packed court and was swiftly condemned. “His unjust conviction is inconsistent with respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law,” contended the US State Department. Nils Muižnieks, director of Amnesty International Europe, called the ruling a “travesty of justice of spectacular proportions” that “defies all logic,” additionally asserting that “this verdict deals a devastating blow not only to Osman Kavala, his co-defendants and their families, but to everyone who believes in justice and human rights activism in Turkey and beyond.”

Also convicted of being involved in the Gezi Park protests and sentenced to eighteen years apiece were seven activists and artists. These were Hakan Altınay, an executive board member of Anadolu Kültür; housing-justice lawyer Can Atalay; Yiğit Ali Ekmekçi, deputy chair of Anadolu Kültür; urban planner Tayfun Kahraman; filmmaker Mine Özerden; documentary filmaker Çiğdem Mater Utku; and architect Mücella Yapıcı.

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