Washington can Help Free Turkey's Highest-Profile Prisoner of Conscience | Opinion

Among advocates for Turkey's minorities, Osman Kavala is a secular saint. As a philanthropist, he has been the benefactor of initiatives to document and restore heritage sites, support arts and culture and fund intercommunal reconciliation projects. As a good Samaritan, he has through his projects touched the lives of millions of Turkish citizens—Christians and Jews, Armenians and Kurds, children and LGBTI individuals alike. Sadly, Kavala has been rotting in solitary confinement at a maximum-security prison on the outskirts of Istanbul for over three years as Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's highest-profile prisoner of conscience.

In 2018, former U.S. ambassador to Ankara Eric S. Edelman and I warned the Trump administration about Erdogan's policy of holding Americans hostage and urged the White House to take action. Back then, Pastor Andrew Brunson of North Carolina was the highest-profile victim of Erdogan's hostage diplomacy—Brunson was one of the 50 Western nationals, permanent residents and employees imprisoned on trumped-up charges while Ankara used them as bargaining chips to extract concessions from their governments.

Four months later, the U.S. Treasury Department issued Global Magnitsky sanctions against Turkey's justice and interior ministers for their "leading roles" in Brunson's "unjust detention." Shortly thereafter, Kristina Arriaga, the vice chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), adopted the pastor as a prisoner of conscience. This pressure worked. Following Brunson's two years of detention on farcical terrorism and espionage charges, Erdogan allowed him to leave Turkey in October 2018.

It is now time to exert the same kind of pressure on behalf of Kavala, the highest-profile prisoner of conscience in Turkey. Last month, The Washington Post editorial board spoke out on Kavala's behalf, condemning "Erdogan's crackpot charges against a harmless activist." The editors also highlighted how Kavala "exemplified the liberal, secular side of Turkey that Mr. Erdogan despises."

Kavala's secular profile makes it even more important for a USCIRF commissioner to adopt the philanthropist as a prisoner of conscience. Since its establishment in 1998 pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act, USCIRF has worked "to uphold the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief for all." This includes defending secular individuals like Kavala from the oppression of Islamist autocrats like Erdogan.

President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives to give a press conference after the cabinet meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey, on September 21, 2020. Adem ALTAN / AFP/Getty

In 2013, the American Humanist Association commended USCIRF for including discrimination against atheists in its annual report and "raising awareness that religious freedom includes standing up for nonbelievers." There are millions of Muslims around the world who define themselves as secular, cultural, non-practicing or lapsed as well as many others who no longer identify with the faith. USCIRF's recognition of a high-profile secular figure like Kavala will send a strong message that persecuted secular individuals are not alone as they face intense pressure not only from their governments but also from their own communities.

Erdogan's targeting of Kavala, similar to his targeting of Brunson, is clearly the result of religious intolerance and bigotry. A month after releasing Brunson, the Turkish president accused Kavala of being a "terror financier" during his address to local elected officials, adding, "And who is behind him? The famous Hungarian Jew Soros." The role anti-Semitic conspiracy theories play in guiding Erdogan's policy is well attested. As Oren Kessler and I have documented, such conspiracies even find their way into government-funded blockbusters broadcast on state television.

Kavala's "crime" in Erdogan's eyes, however, goes much deeper than serving a global Jewish conspiracy. As a wealthy benefactor, Kavala has devoted his time and resources to documenting, preserving and publicizing Turkey's non-Muslim heritage. He has also invested in numerous peace-building projects, including Turkish-Kurdish and Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, two of the most sensitive issues for Erdogan's ultranationalist coalition partners. Kavala's courage, which earned him the European Archaeological Heritage Prize in 2019 and the Hrant Dink Award in 2020, also earned him detention in solitary confinement for over three years, despite an earlier acquittal in a Turkish court and a ruling in his favor by the European Court of Human Rights.

It is time for Kavala to come back home, to his family, to his people and to his philanthropic projects, so that he can continue his efforts to build pluralism from the ground up. By adopting Kavala as a prisoner of conscience, USCIRF would send a strong message of solidarity to the courageous individuals in majority Muslim countries around the world who put their lives in danger to protect the rights and freedoms of minorities and their at-risk heritage.

To repeat the winning formula that freed Pastor Brunson from Erdogan's dungeons, the incoming administration should consider joining the effort to liberate Kavala by issuing Global Magnitsky sanctions on the officials responsible for his detention. This would demonstrate that the United States stands not only for the rights of Americans and Christians, but for all, regardless of nationality, faith or convictions.

Aykan Erdemir (@aykan_erdemir) is the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a former member of the Turkish parliament, and serves on the Anti-Defamation League's Task Force on Middle East Minorities.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.