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Post-coup purge snares beloved 'Soros of Turkey'

The arrest of major Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala marks an escalation in the government's crackdown on its opposition and has sent a chill through the Istanbul elite.

After nearly two weeks of interrogation in an Istanbul prison, leading civil society activist Osman Kavala was formally arrested today and awaits trial on charges of seeking to overthrow the Turkish government.

Kavala’s arrest marks an escalation in the government’s Orwellian drive to galvanize public opinion against alleged Western conspirators and local fifth columnists who want to weaken and dismember Turkey.

“Outrageous charges against Osman Kavala. He’s a well-respected man. But today’s Turkey is ruled by crazy conspiracy theories,” tweeted Kati Piri, a member of the European Parliament and its Turkey rapporteur, echoing widespread sentiment in EU circles.

The 60-year-old Kavala comes from a line of wealthy Ottoman aristocrats. He has rebelled against the establishment but remained part of it, running an array of businesses and donating the proceeds to worthy causes. Kavala is an ardent champion of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation and his philanthropy has greased a broad range of projects from Kurdish rights to the environment. Many impoverished students, intellectuals and artists have counted on Kavala to bail them out.

That he should be touched will have sent a chill through the Istanbul elite. The silence of TUSIAD, the main lobby group for pro-secular Turkish business people, in the face of Kavala’s plight speaks volumes about their fear.

A smear campaign against Kavala in the pro-government Turkish media had been building prior to this detention on Oct. 18. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to endorse it, recently saying, "The identity of the Soros of Turkey has been uncovered.” Erdogan was referring to Kavala’s supposed links to fellow philanthropist George Soros. The Hungarian-American financier has been accused of funding civil society in the former Eastern Bloc countries to unseat communist regimes and advance his own business interests. 

Erdogan also said that Kavala had been linked to Metin Topuz, who worked for the US Drug Enforcement Agency at the US Consulate in Istanbul. Topuz was arrested for his alleged ties to Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based cleric who is accused of masterminding last year's coup attempt.

The move sent US-Turkish relations into a tailspin with the United States freezing all nonimmigrant visa application business at its consulates in Turkey.

Aydinlik, a Turkish publication affiliated with Dogu Perincek, an ultranationalist politician who favors dumping NATO in favor of close ties to Moscow, claimed that Kavala had frequent contact with Henri Barkey, a prominent American academic who is the victim of another smear campaign. Barkey, who organized a workshop on Iran on Buyukada, an island near Istanbul only days before the July 15 putsch, has been accused of organizing the latter on behalf of the CIA.

His picture was splashed alongside those of several of the 16 participants of the front pages of the pro-government titles accompanied by Kafkaesque accounts of his alleged mischief.

Barkey, who has also written for Al-Monitor, said in a telephone interview, “I have met with Osman Kavala numerous times over the years. He is a terrific person but I have never had any direct professional dealings with him. The last time I saw him was when I was in Turkey last summer. I bumped into him at a restaurant and had a brief chat. That’s all.”

Barkey believes that he and Kavala have been targeted to help the government “feed the fires of the conspiracy” and to pressure European governments to extradite alleged Gulenists who have sought asylum in the EU. “They know the Europeans care about [Kavala],” Barkey said.

Scapegoating Kavala and others who move in Western circles may stem from the government’s desire to cover potentially damning evidence from Reza Zarrab, the Turkish-Iranian gold trader who is expected to appear in a New York court later this month on charges of busting US government sanctions on Iran. Zarrab, who has boasted of his connections to Erdogan and high-ranking members of his Justice and Development Party, may plead guilty, according to The New York Times. “Biggest news on Turkey today … Signs that Zarrab could sing," tweeted Howard Eissenstat, a New York-based academic who writes extensively about Turkey. Erdogan has been pressing for Zarrab’s extradition.

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