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Turkey Is Exploiting the Fog of War

By supporting Ukraine and presenting himself as a regional mediator and peacemaker, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has found the political cover he needs to crack down further on potential dissidents and opposition figures at home. The brazen persecution of philanthropist Osman Kavala is a case in point.

NEW YORK – Russia’s war on Ukraine has allowed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to pose as a statesman and peacemaker in the region, even as he doubles down on violating democratic principles and human rights at home. Consider the plight of Osman Kavala, a prominent philanthropist and civil-society activist who was recently sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, four years after being acquitted, re-tried, and imprisoned again by Erdoğan-controlled courts.

Turkey’s treatment of Kavala exceeds even Russia’s persecution of Alexei Navalny, an opposition figure who was recently sentenced to nine years in prison. Turkey has doomed Kavala to what Hannah Arendt called “the hole of oblivion which totalitarian rulers prepare for their opponents.” Unwarranted life imprisonment not only erases the civic personality and social identity of the condemned but also shreds the fabric of memory and narrative that bind communities together, creating the conditions for a regime to use violence with impunity.

The stunning sentence for Kavala compares with the life imprisonment imposed on the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Öcalan, and the continuing detention of the leader of the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş. But unlike Öcalan and Demirtaş, Kavala is not a politician, a soldier, or a media personality. He is an ordinary citizen who participated actively in Turkish civil society, and helped build independent cultural and scientific fora.