Under Turkey’s on-going state of emergency, which has been in place since the failed coup attempt last summer, arrests and detentions have become a daily occurrence. The detention of businessman and civil society advocate Osman Kavala on Wednesday, October 18, however, likely marks the start of a new campaign of repression against Turkey’s NGOs and ethnic and religious minority groups.
Osman Kavala was born into a wealthy family and took over the Kavala group of companies upon his father’s death in 1982. He went on to found one of Turkey’s most prominent publishers as well as the Anadolu Kültür Foundation, which promotes cultural exchange and reconciliation with Armenia, as well as Turkey’s Armenian minority.
Kavala has been instrumental in promoting more honest and open discussion about the slaughter of Turkey’s Armenian population, during the First World War. Though much of the world characterizes these events as a genocide, the Turkish state has vehemently denied that the suffering of Ottoman Armenians during this period was any greater than any other Ottoman group. Until the early part of this century, it was impossible for Turkish intellectuals or academics to question the Turkish government’s official stance position on the issue. “Kavala was an important taboo breaker, along with a handful of others, on this subject,” prominent Turkish journalist and founder of the P24 independent media platform, Yavuz Baydar, told Muftah.
Kavala’s cultural and intellectual initiatives extended beyond Armenian issues, and have included promoting Kurdish culture in Turkey, as well as better relations between Turkey and Greece. According to Baydar, Kavala’s “heart was always on the left,” and he was naturally drawn to activism.
Tugba Tanyeri Erdemir, a research associate at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Anthropology, and member of the Association for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the architectural heritage of religious minorities in Turkey, which Kavala helped to found, believes that Kavala’s initiatives are all the more important given the current political climate. “Kavala is a bridge builder and played a key role in bringing scholars, activists, and community leaders together, and this is particularly crucial given the Turkish citizens’ fear of civic engagement under the state of emergency,” she told Muftah.
Louis Fishman, a professor at Brooklyn College who focuses on Turkish Affairs, noted that “For much of the previous decade, [Kavala’s] attempts at building bridges was in line with many voices within the AKP. However, unfortunately, with the clampdown on academics and journalists, his arrest is not a surprise, even if it still comes as a shock to many.”
After Kavala’s arrest, police searched and seized computers from the Anadolu Kültür Foundation’s office. Kavala’s lawyer has not yet been able to meet with him and does not know on what grounds Kavala has been detained. Under the state of emergency, Turkish citizens can be detained without charge.
His arrest prompted a wave of vocal shock and condemnation from rights organizations, European politicians, and academics who work on minority issues in Turkey. “If Osman Kavala can be arrested, anyone can be,” Baydar, the Turkish journalist, told Muftah. Echoing this sentiment, Howard Eissenstat, professor at St. Lawrence University and non-resident fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), compared Kavala’s arrest to the prosecution of journalists associated with the newspaper Cumhuriyet, one of the oldest and most respected publications in Turkey. “In both cases, we have the direct targeting of individuals who are so fundamentally mainstream and widely respected that their prosecution underlines that truly nobody is safe. They highlight the wider crisis precisely because the prosecutions are so patently absurd and vindictive.”
Both Baydar and Eissenstat predict that Kavala’s arrest is just the beginning of what will likely be a wider crackdown on civil society. Baydar believes there may be a high-level decision to crush Turkish civil society, and has observed widespread fear among NGOs in the wake of Kavala’s arrest. According to Baydar, many of these organizations were established in last fifteen years, during Turkey’s EU accession talks. Because they have been created in full cooperation with the Turkish government, the state knows precisely the people and organizations to target in the event of a purge.
In apparent fulfillment of Baydar and Eissenstat’s predictions, on Friday, October 20, Şaban Kardaş, the president of a pro-AKP think-tank, was also arrested. Reports indicate that Kardaş and Kavala’s arrests are related. If these reports are true, the civil society purge in Turkey is now underway. As Eissenstat told Mutah “no one is safe,” not even AKP loyalists and apologists.