It is the letters that sustain Ayse Bugra – handwritten by her husband Osman Kavala, who is encircled by prison walls.
The gaunt curly-haired philanthropist has been imprisoned for the past four years despite having been convicted of nothing.
According to the European Court of Human Rights, the 64-year-old has been imprisoned in order to silence him as a human rights defender. Human rights organisations say his case is just the tip of the iceberg in Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
His wife of 33 years, a renowned academic who is petite and softly spoken, is allowed to visit him twice a month. Because of Covid, they are separated by a glass panel. They are reunited by the written word.
“We make an effort to read the same books,” she says. “We write to each other, share our thoughts, and talk about what we’re reading. Despite everything, we try to live.”
‘His absence is everywhere’
Osman Kavala has faced a merry-go-round of charges.
He was initially charged with orchestrating and financing nationwide anti-government protests in 2013. He was acquitted, but within hours, new allegations of spying and involvement in the 2016 coup attempt surfaced – “suspicious charges,” according to the US State Department.
His book-lined office is still filled with framed artworks, sculptures, and towering piles of paperwork, just as it was when he was arrested. “His absence is everywhere,” his wife observes as she looks around the room.
“He was good at listening and trying to understand. He was always confident that he could talk to anyone. Dialogue was essential for him in order to build bridges between people. Even in the midst of the country’s increasing polarisation, my husband continued to do so.”
Mr Kavala told the BBC from his cell in Silivri prison on Istanbul’s outskirts that the judiciary was “being used as a tool for retribution in line with the government’s priorities.” He responded to our questions in writing.
“After the failed coup in 2016, being arrested without tangible evidence and being fired from public sector jobs became standard practise,” he wrote. “The way Turkey is currently governed does not appear to be a true democracy.”
If and when he is released from prison, he admits he may not feel completely free.
Is it possible that he will be released soon?
The next hearing is scheduled for Friday. According to Ayse Bugra, she “always tries not to hope, because hope leads to despair.”
His continued detention has put Turkey at odds with its Western allies as well as the Council of Europe, which Turkey’s combative leader does not appear to mind.
If he is not released by the end of this month, the Council has threatened to initiate rare infringement proceedings. This could eventually lead to Turkey’s expulsion from the 47-nation human rights organisation.
The European Court of Human Rights issued a binding ruling calling for Mr Kavala’s release two years ago. Ten Western ambassadors were recently threatened with expulsion after echoing that call.
President Erdogan has gone on the offensive, criticising the court and criticising him for his ties to billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
“The European Court of Human Rights issued a ruling,” he explained. “They want to convict Turkey for this Soros relic. Do you allow bandits, killers, or terrorists to be released in your country? “He inquired.
Previously, Turkey’s leader compared justice to a plant. “Underwatering a plant will cause it to dry out, while overwatering will cause it to wilt,” he said in March, announcing a “human rights action plan.”
According to international human rights organisations, the real goal here is to dismantle human rights safeguards and undermine the rule of law.
“Democracy is being hollowed out,” says Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch in Istanbul. “Tens of thousands of people have been detained on bogus terrorism charges. Turkey operates by imprisoning its critics.”
Gunal Kursun, a veteran human rights campaigner, was apprehended by police while he and other activists were attending a human rights workshop in July 2017.
“”The door opened, and it said ‘hands up, this is a raid,’ and we were detained,” he explained. It came as a huge surprise to me and my friends. We had been observing people being detained for the past 20 years, but this was the first time it happened to us.”
Dr. Kursun, a criminal lawyer, was soon imprisoned alongside Osman Kavala. He is now free – at least on paper – after more than 100 days in prison, pending an appeal against a two-year sentence for aiding a terrorist organisation.
It hurt to be accused of terrorism, he said, but he wasn’t alone.
“”Hundreds of thousands of people are facing this kind of ridiculous allegation,” he told me, “and Turkish prisons are full of these kinds of people.” So I wasn’t alone, and it was the only thing that helped me recover.”
He was smartly dressed like the professional he used to be when we met on a sunny morning on the Bosporus shores, but his world has shrunk. The 46-year-old is currently incarcerated in a cell without walls.
Following the failed coup, he was fired from his position as an assistant professor of criminal law. According to official figures, approximately 125,000 people were dismissed by decree in 2016.
Gunal Kursun is concerned about the direction of the country five years later. The same is true for Turkey’s Western allies, who see a shift away from democratic values and free expression.
“I believe that if this government continues, Turkey will become like Russia,” he predicted. “In some ways, it has already occurred. It’s becoming more difficult by the day. When you speak out about human rights violations, the government can easily criminalise you.”
We requested an interview with the Turkish government to discuss international concerns about human rights in Turkey, as well as the case of Osman Kavala. There was no reaction.