Osman Kavala has been in prison in Turkey for the past four years. Why? Because he angered Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by being critical of his rule. The “vendetta” began with the protest rallies against the construction of a shopping center in Taksim Square in Istanbul and spiked after the botched coup in 2016.
Kavala is accused of being in cahoots with exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen and one of the masterminds behind the attempt to topple Erdogan. No compelling evidence has been presented to support these claims and everyone who knows Kavala finds it impossible to believe that he had any part in the coup. None of this matters, though. Despite the international outcry and calls for his release from many different quarters, the Turkish president appears obsessed with the jailed businessman.
Kavala is an extraordinary person. Born into a wealthy family, he took an active interest in safeguarding Turkey’s cultural legacy and was a civil society pioneer. His family’s roots lie in Kavala, northern Greece, and he loves the country and has many friends here. For years, he represented the extroverted, creative and pro-Western face of Turkey to the rest of the world. Every journalist, analyst or diplomat traveling to Istanbul would make a point of meeting with him. An engaging personality with many interests, he never failed to make an impression. He is obviously part of a small elite in Istanbul that yearns for it to become the cosmopolitan and multiethnic city it once was, while grappling with its new, headscarved, homogenous character.
And there are hundreds of thousands of oppressed and suffering Turks all over the country: academics who lost their jobs, businesspeople who speak of their woes only in private and so many others who belong to urban and cosmopolitan Turkey that are desperate for a voice, for someone to represent them.
Erdogan is treating Kavala so inhumanely precisely because he wants to strike fear into anyone who has the temerity to take a stand. He cannot, however, be oblivious to the fact that he has turned Kavala into a symbol for every serious, moderate critic of his human rights violations.
The Turkish president does not care, though, because he is blinded by hubris. He is at a point where denial has become reality as his courtiers continue to build the walls around the Presidential Palace even higher with paranoia and flattery to drown out the outcry coming from the other side.
Every person who is worried that authoritarians are getting the upper hand all over the world and who wants a modern and semi-European Turkey should be concerned about Kavala’s fate. So, until he is released, we should all adopt the rallying cry: “Je suis Kavala.”