1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

German ifa culture award goes to Osman Kavala

Stefan Dege
November 10, 2022

Turkish culture patron and human rights activist Osman Kavala, imprisoned in Turkey these past five years, has been awarded the ifa culture prize from Germany — a political signal.

Hand holds up a poster showing head of Osman Kavala, and a quote in German by the PEN organization
Human rights activist, cultural patron and businessman Osman KavalaImage: Christophe Gateau/dpa/picture alliance

The Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (ifa) awarded on Thursday in Berlin the Award for the Dialogue of Cultures, endowed with €10,000 ($10,044), to Osman Kavala.

The laureate will not be present to accept the prize; in April 2022 a court in Istanbul sentenced him to life imprisonment under aggravated conditions, which means the 64-year-old cannot be released early on parole. The verdict is, however, not yet final.

Kavala was charged with supporting the 2013 Gezi protests in an attempt to overthrow the government. The mass protests arose over plans to cut down trees and build a shopping mall in a park, but soon, people across the country took to the streets in protests against the government. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was Turkey's prime minister at the time.

This verdict, too, sparked international criticism after Kavala had already spent four years in the high-security Silivri Prison near Istanbul without any verdict. It was "revenge justice" on the part of Erdogan, journalist Deniz Yücel told DW. Yücel served time in the same high-security prison in 2017 for alleged terror propaganda.

Important role on the Turkish culture scene

Kavala, an entrepreneur, patron of the arts and human rights activist, has played an important role in Turkish cultural life over the years.

In 2002, he established Anadolu Kultur, a foundation that promotes art and culture in Turkey. It finances groups that focus on Turkish taboo topics, including Armenian culture and history and the fate of Syrian refugees. It supports an Armenian-Turkish youth symphony orchestra as well as an Armenian-Turkish cinema platform. Exhibitions in Kavala's Istanbul Depo art space often go right to the heart of sensitive issues in Turkish society.

 Osman Kavala in front of a microphone, gesticulating
Osman Kavala speaking at a news conference in 2014Image: Wiktor Dabkowski/dpa/picture alliance

Kavala's foundation, which has offices in Istanbul and Diyarbakir, has also collaborated with the German Goethe Institute.

The arts patron also co-founded the Turkish branch of the Open Society Foundation, headed by Hungarian-American philanthropist and billionaire George Soros.

Kavala prefers to stay in the background

Kavala, who is married to economics professor Ayse Bugra, attended Robert College in Istanbul and studied economics at the University of Manchester in the UK.

After the death of his father in 1982, he took over the family business, Kavala Companies, which at the time still worked for the Turkish military.

But the declared pacifist soon withdrew from active business. Since then, he has seen himself as a philanthropist. "Turkey's wealthy like to erect magnificent museum buildings bearing their names. Osman Kavala prefers to help quietly," wrote Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Turkish authorities have had their sights on Kavala for a long time, perhaps because of how Kavala, who is among the richest men in the country, spends his money. Erdogan called him the "Soros of Turkey" because Kavala, like Soros, supports civil rights organizations. The tall, slender man with curly gray-black hair and a full beard was also often an important contact for foreign visitors.

Immediately after his arrest in 2017 at Istanbul airport, there were protests in Washington and Paris. Kavala denied all allegations brought against him.

Demonstrators in front of a building hold up placards in Turkish that read, "The Gezi resistance continues"
Demonstrators gather in support of Osman Kavala outside the Istanbul courthouse in April 2022Image: Ozan Köse/AFP/Getty Images

In early 2020, a Turkish court acquitted him of all charges, but just a few hours later, charges were brought again, alleging involvement in the 2016 coup attempts, and he was rearrested.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) demanded Kavala's release, referring to the trial as "politically motivated." The Council of Europe initially threatened Turkey with disciplinary measures and in December 2021, initiated infringement proceedings. The Turkish government remained unimpressed. As a member state, Turkey must abide by Council of Europe decisions or risk expulsion.

'Kafkaesque trial'

In a joint appeal in the fall of 2021, the ambassadors of the United States, France, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Finland and New Zealand demanded Kavala's immediate release. President Erdogan first ordered to have those diplomats expelled from Turkey, but then backtracked on that unprecedented step.

In the wake of the recent verdict against the Turkish patron of the arts, the United States reacted with "deep concern." German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also called for Kavala's "immediate release." The court ruling is in stark contradiction to the rule of law standards and international obligations to which Turkey is committed as a member of the Council of Europe and as an EU accession candidate, Baerbock said during a visit to Turkey in July. The Amnesty International human rights organization and the German PEN authors' association also sharply criticized the trial against Kavala. On Deutschlandfunk radio, German State Minister for Culture Claudia Roth called the trial "Kafkaesque."

Annalena Baerbock and Mevlut Cavusoglu stand in front of microphones
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and her Turkish counterpart, Mevlut CavusogluImage: Annette Riedl/dpa/picture alliance

'Absolutely exemplary'

"All over the world, human and civil rights are under threat and their defenders persecuted. In this situation, we find the courage and resistance displayed by Osman Kavala to be absolutely exemplary," the ifa jury writes on the institute's website.

The Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations, based in Berlin and Stuttgart, promotes international art and cultural exchange. It acts as a center for foreign cultural and educational policy and is also responsible for the German contribution to the Venice Biennale.

Previous winners of the ifa Prize for Dialogue between Cultures include Daniel Barenboim (2009), Human Rights Watch (2016) and Igor Levit (2021).

This article was originally written in German.