A Good Citizen Jailed in Turkey

Osman Kavala in Brussels in 2014. He has been charged with trying to overthrow the Turkish government. Credit Wiktor Dabkowski/Deutsche Presse-Agentur, via Associated Press
Osman Kavala in Brussels in 2014. He has been charged with trying to overthrow the Turkish government. Credit Wiktor Dabkowski/Deutsche Presse-Agentur, via Associated Press

The ever-expanding crackdown by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey against real and perceived enemies has reached outlandish levels.

On Oct. 19, Osman Kavala, one of Turkey’s most prominent businessmen and civil society activists, was detained at an airport in Istanbul. On Wednesday a court charged him with trying to overthrow the government and “attempting to abolish the constitutional order.”

A lanky, charismatic man with a shock of curly hair, Mr. Kavala is well known in Turkey, Europe and parts of the Middle East for his tireless work to heal the country’s multiple fractures.

Mr. Kavala was returning from Gaziantep, a city in southeastern Turkey that houses about 350,000 Syrian refugees. He had been there to set up a cultural center aiming to integrate the refugees with the local community.

Even before charges had been filed, President Erdogan lost no time to take aim at Mr. Kavala, calling him, without mentioning his name, “Turkey’s Soros.” The appellation resonates with the conspiracy theories common among Mr. Erdogan’s supporters linking George Soros with machinations intended to undermine Turkish values and national independence. “Some try to deflect the truth by means of praises attributed to him such as ‘He was a good citizen, a media member, an NGO representative,’ ” Mr. Erdogan said.

The Turkish president also linked Mr. Kavala to the investigation of United States consulate employee, Metin Topuz, who was arrested on Oct. 4 for alleged connections to Fethullah Gulen, the Islamist cleric living in self-imposed exile in the United States. Mr. Erdogan sees Mr. Gulen and his network of adherents as responsible (not without cause) for the failed July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.

And Erdoganist news media started what appeared to be a coordinated campaign to demonize Mr. Kavala. In addition to accusing him of collaboration with Gulenists, he has also been accused of acting as an agent for American and European interests, organizing the Gezi protests of 2013, having ties to a prominent mobster, assisting Kurdish activists, among other things.

The charges against Mr. Kavala are absurd. His sole crime consists of organizing cultural and civil society initiatives to mend historical fissures between ethnic Turks and their Kurdish and Armenian brethren, and to bring Turkey closer to its neighbors — Europe, Iran, Armenia.

As teenagers in Istanbul, Mr. Kavala and I were schoolmates. He distinguished himself at school with an interest in social causes and exuded an infectious enthusiasm about the possibility of making things better.

Another school friend from those years, Sevan Nisanyan, a quirky linguist and writer, who has been critical of the current and previous Turkish governments, was jailed in January 2014. He was convicted of violating the construction code for building a house in a heritage town. But there is little doubt that it was his harsh commentary on Turkey’s establishment ideologies — from Kemalism to Islam — that angered the regime.

On July 14, Mr. Nisanyan, who was on a day pass from his prison, managed an escape to Greece. He changed his Twitter profile picture to a flying bird and tweeted: “The bird has flown away. The same wishes to the remaining 80 million.” (The Turkish population is 80 million.)

That is what Turkey has become under Mr. Erdogan’s harsh rule. The country’s creative and innovative minds are under constant threat from a regime that rewards only loyalty and tolerates little independence. Mr. Erdogan’s professed targets are the adherents of Mr. Gulen. Tens of thousands have been purged from their jobs or imprisoned on suspicion of Gulenist ties, with little due process. But as in Mr. Kavala’s case, Mr. Erdogan’s sweep knows no boundaries.

The absurdity and the egregiousness of the Turkish president’s crackdown is starkly illustrated by the case of Ahmet Sik, a leftist investigative journalist. Mr. Sik came to prominence with a book-length exposé on the Gulen movement in 2011. At the time, Mr. Erdogan was in cahoots with the Gulenist police and prosecutors who were fabricating evidence against secularist military officers, journalists, academics and politicians.

My father-in-law, Cetin Dogan, a retired four-star general in the Turkish military, was one of the victims. Along with hundreds of others caught up in the so-called Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials, he spent four years in jail on charges of plotting a coup against Mr. Erdogan. My wife and I evaluated the court documents and were able to demonstrate that the evidence used by Gulenists in these cases was forged.

In his 2011 book, Mr. Sik described how the Gulenists had installed themselves in the bureaucracy and were engaged in a wide range of dirty tricks of this sort against their opponents. He was promptly carted off to jail for a year. After his release, Mr. Sik didn’t mince words on Mr. Erdogan’s complicity, corruption and increasing authoritarianism. Last December, five months after the failed coup, Mr. Sik was jailed again, this time on accusations of spreading propaganda on behalf of the Gulen movement.

Mr. Erdogan is reviled by the opposition — secularists as well as many members of religious and ethnic minorities such as the Alevis and Kurds — but he is lionized in the conservative Sunni heartland of the country.

He narrowly won a constitutional referendum in April that has greatly increased the powers of the presidency. The slim victory may have been an even worse outcome for the country than his winning by a large margin. The president appears to have concluded that he can cling on to power only through repression.

Mr. Erdogan’s strategy is to divide Turkey so he can maintain the firm support of half of the population. Keeping the country on alert against perceived foreign enemies and inflaming nationalist-religious passions serve to mobilize his base. That also neutralizes the main opposition parties, which are all highly nationalistic. These parties are unlikely to show much love for Europe or the United States and they also constitute reliable allies in the war against the Kurdish rebels.

Someone like Mr. Kavala becomes a target precisely because he represents everything that Mr. Erdogan’s regime is trying to obliterate: a thriving and independent civil society, tolerance for intellectual diversity, cultural autonomy for Kurds and other minorities, cooperation with nongovernmental networks abroad.

Last week, several human rights activists, including the Turkey director of Amnesty International, were released after spending several months in jail for “providing assistance to armed terrorist groups.” I wish for my friend’s sake that his release will come soon, too. But the reality that Turkey has become a prison for its thinkers, journalists and activists is unlikely to change soon.

Dani Rodrik is a professor of international political economy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

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