‘I don’t expect anything’ from Turkish justice


Days before Osman Kavala’s appearance in a Turkish court on Friday, his wife, Ayse Bugra, gave an exclusive interview to FRANCE 24. She spoke about the accusations faced by the so-called “red billionaire”, a prominent member of Turkish civil society who has been behind bars without a sentence since October 2017. He risks life in prison if he is found guilty of “attempting to overthrow the government”. 

Osman Kavala, a philanthropist and entrepreneur nicknamed the “red billionaire” by the pro-government press for his left-wing activism, is set to appear in an Istanbul court on April 22. He is accused of “attempting to destabilise Turkey” during the failed coup of 2016. In the same file is a different charge related to another event: Kavala is also accused of organising and financing the Gezi protests of 2013. He has been in jail since October 2017 and risks spending the rest of his life there.

Ayse Bugra’s voice has become a familiar one in international media, and if her speech seems hesitant at times, her English is impeccable and the words she chooses reveal the extent of the ordeal this academic has been undergoing for four and a half years now. 

We began by asking why the Turkish justice system has been so relentless in its pursuit of her husband. “There are several theories, several hypotheses,” she starts. “One of them, which actually is in harmony with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, is that it serves to intimidate civil society activists. So, it has an ulterior political purpose – civil society activists and human rights defenders in the country. As I said, this is in harmony with the ECHR ruling which said in [December 2019] that the detention of my husband constituted a violation of several articles of the European Convention of Human Rights.”  

Indeed, after several calls for Turkey, one of its founding members, to release Osman Kavala, in February 2022 the Council of Europe launched infringement proceedings against Ankara. Ayse Bugra goes on: “There are other theories about the influence of a certain group of politicians, people, who are in favour of severing, cutting the relationships between Turkey and Western democracies. So, the detention of my husband serves to detach Turkey from the Western democratic world.” For Ayse Bugra this theory is absurd: her husband, she says, has never been affiliated with a political party or movement.  

Kavala is an ideal target. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has elevated him to the level of public enemy number one of the Turkish nation and calls him the “agent of George Soros in Turkey”. The 64-year-old embodies everything the Turkish President claims to oppose: “An internal enemy collaborating with external enemies”, Ayse Bugra explains. “It is a particular political strategy which uses a polarising discourse and divides the population into “us” and “them”…I think my husband has been used in that particular strategy of polarisation.”  

‘Absurd’, incoherent charges

Accused of spying one day, attempting to overthrow the government the next, Osman Kavala was acquitted of certain charges then re-arrested for the same ones the same day. Different files, different accusations were combined. All seemed coordinated to prevent him from being able to leave the high security Silivri prison, in western Istanbul.

Born in Paris to a wealthy family, and raised in the United Kingdom, the philanthropist dedicated his fortune to the promotion of dialogue between Turkey’s different cultures and minorities, including the Kurds and the Armenians. He was awarded the European Archaeological Heritage Prize in 2019 and set up a number of initiatives including Anadolu Kültür, in Istanbul, where we met with his wife, located just a stone’s throw from the famous Gezi Park, whose planned destruction was the catalyst for a social protest movement in 2013. “Gezi is here, this is Gezi”, Ayse Bugra says with a smile and a wave of her hand in the direction of the window that looks out onto a rare patch of greenery in central Istanbul. “Osman’s office is here, his mother lives here, this is a family building. Something extremely interesting was happening there, Gezi was an extremely interesting event. There were all kinds of people there – young, old, rich, poor. So of course, he would go there, and he would try to prevent the construction of a commercial building in that park.” 

No detail seems too small or insignificant to include it in the accusations against Osman Kavala. Among the elements put forth by the plaintiffs is a map with the distribution of bee colonies across Turkey, found in the art patron’s mobile phone. The document was presented as proof that Kavala was seeking to redesign the country’s borders. To prove he had organised and financed the Gezi protests, the prosecution noted he had bought protesters some plastic tables and chairs, as well as poğaça, a kind of Turkish bread roll.  

“The absurdity is in the charges themselves,” explains the university professor. “These were nationwide protests, they were all through the country, and [they] involved, according to official figures, 3.5 million people. Imagine a single person organising and financing a national protest movement of that dimension. So, this in itself is absurd.” 

Culture as a weapon and a shield

When Ayse Bugra talks about the man she has called her husband for close to 35 years, her voice changes, and the faraway look in her eyes tells of the pain of their separation. “He has the right to make one 10-minute phone call every week, it was this morning. And that is basically to talk to his mother. She is quite old, it’s difficult for her. And then I see him every week, the visits were rare during the pandemic but now I go every week. We talk with a glass panel between us, by telephone, for an hour”. The professor of political economy at the prestigious Bogazici University – also on the government’s radar – displays the manners of an aristocrat and the speech patterns of a sage. “I don’t expect anything anymore. After having been subjected to a very long and very painful process which is very hard to explain in legal or even logical terms, I cannot predict anything. I don’t expect anything and I’m trying not to hope. Especially not hope. Because hope that ends with disappointment can be devastating.” No matter what her husband does, Ayse Bugra tells us, it doesn’t seem to matter. “It’s really hard. During the last two hearings I refused to enter the courtroom, because it was too much. Lawyers present [a] very articulate, very substantive defence, and then, it is as if nothing was said. It’s always the same decision with the same wording that is repeated.” 

And yet, Ayse Bugra travels to the court every time, to show up for the friends, journalists and diplomats who are there to support her and her husband. “I feel that I have to be there, otherwise I wouldn’t go.” How does she cope? Again, the same tight smile. “One manages. My husband and I are lucky because we really like literature, fiction.” 

A glimpse into Osman Kavala’s office shows books stacked on every surface, including one by Thomas Mann. In “The Magic Mountain”, the German author writes, “A man lives not only his personal life, as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, the life of his epoch and his contemporaries.”