By Daren Butler
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala, who was sentenced to life in prison on Monday on charges of seeking to overthrow the government, played a major role developing Turkish civil society before he was detained in 2017.
The 64-year-old has been involved in numerous civil society projects over the decades, from a publishing house that aimed to foster social change after Turkey’s 1980 coup to boosting culture through his Anadolu Kultur organisation.
That work came to an abrupt halt on Oct. 18, 2017, when he was stopped at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. Two weeks later he was jailed pending trial, accused of attempting to oust the government by force.
After that, he was held in Silivri prison near Istanbul, and tried in a case which attracted growing attention from foreign officials and human rights groups.
On the fourth anniversary of his arrest, the U.S. ambassador and nine others called in a joint statement for his “urgent release” and a just and speedy resolution to his case. President Tayyip Erdogan responded by threatening to expel the envoys.
Speaking before that furore pushed him onto the international news agenda, Kavala said all the foreign interest had boosted his morale but also caused him sorrow.
“It is extremely saddening to see that foreign institutions and politicians attach more importance to your right to live freely than public officials in your own country,” he said in answer to Reuters’ written questions last year.
Kavala was accused of financing nationwide protests in 2013 triggered by plans to redevelop Istanbul’s Gezi Park, and also of involvement in a failed coup in 2016. He always denied the charges.
His trial is a world away from the world he grew up in. Graduating from Manchester University in England with an economics degree in 1982, Kavala then took over management of family companies.
After participating in relief work following a devastating 1999 earthquake he quit business to focus on civil society work.
In 2002 he set up Anadolu Kultur, supporting projects in underdeveloped parts of Turkey, notably the mainly Kurdish southeast.
Seeking to explain why he was targeted by prosecutors, he said authorities sought to portray the Gezi protests as a plot organised by foreign forces. In doing so, they linked them to billionaire financier George Soros.
“Because my office was next to Gezi Park and I went there, and because I had links to (Soros’s) Open Society Foundation they decided I had the right qualities for this role,” he said.
Critics say Turkey’s judiciary has been exploited to punish Erdogan’s opponents under a crackdown following the 2016 coup attempt. The government says the judiciary is independent.
Erdogan has targeted Kavala in speeches, calling him a “Soros leftover” and scorning foreigners who support him.
Kavala said the four years he spent in prison in the build up to the trial had already taken a heavy personal toll on him and his family.
“While I’ve been in prison I’ve lost some of my close friends. These are things that cannot be recovered,” he said.
(Reporting by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Andrew Heavens)