A spokesperson for billionaire philanthropist George Soros’s Open Society Foundations has denied any connection between them and the anti-government protests at Gezi Park, including claims that they financed the events of 2013, BBC Turkish service reported on Friday.
The protests in 2013 erupted over government plans to demolish Gezi Park in Taksim. They quickly turned into mass anti-government demonstrations that were violently suppressed by the government, leading to the death of 11 protestors due to the use of disproportionate force by the police.
The foundation ceased operations in Turkey in late 2018, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused Soros of assigning people to “divide nations and shatter them.”
The president has repeatedly accused businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala, who had been behind bars since October 2017 and was sentenced to aggravated life on charges of instigating the Gezi Park protests, of being a communist agent of Soros.
The spokesperson told BBC in an interview on Friday that they had no involvement in the 2013 protests, adding that they had been working, and inspected, in Turkey for years in compliance with the law, that they have carried out joint projects with various ministries and official institutions and that the foundation’s contacts with Turkish authorities continued until 2018, including several meetings held between Soros and Erdoğan.
BBC said the spokesperson also claimed meeting with Turkish presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın during a visit to Turkey in 2015, but the presidency didn’t respond to their request for comment on the incident.
Starting its activities in Turkey in 2001, the foundation had supported “Turkey’s long-running and now stalled EU accession process,” the spokesperson said, adding that its other priorities were strengthening education standards, protecting women’s rights, combating discrimination and helping to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis in the country.
BBC cited the spokesman as saying that the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) relations with the foundation were good in the early 2000s and that the deterioration that came afterward wasn’t about them but rather the Turkish government.
The spokesman said the allegations that they were involved in the 2013 protests and financed them were “baseless, ridiculous and political, accusations based on conspiracy theories.”
When asked to comment on Kavala’s current situation, the spokesperson said he had taken on various roles in the management of the foundation and is a “respected businessman and a philanthropist who is known for his support for human rights, art and culture in Turkey” and that they were sad to see him “being persecuted as a means to intimidate civil society groups in Turkey.”
“The Open Society Foundations are calling on the Turkish government to end this nonsense by freeing Osman Kavala and everyone else wrongfully imprisoned for political purposes and focus its energy on solving many real issues affecting the country’s peace and stability,” the spokesperson said.
Turkey has refused to release Kavala despite a 2019 European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruling that found his detention was in pursuance of an “ulterior motive,” that of silencing him as a human rights defender. The non-implementation of the ruling prompted the Council of Europe (CoE) Committee of Ministers to launch an infringement procedure against Turkey in February that is still ongoing.
Although Kavala was acquitted of charges of attempting to overthrow the state through involvement in the Gezi Park protests in February 2020, he was rearrested the same day on charges related to a 2016 abortive putsch in Turkey in a move described by his lawyers as a tactic to circumvent the court’s 2019 ruling to free him.
An İstanbul court on April 25 sentenced Kavala to aggravated life and his co-defendants to 18 years each on charges of instigating the anti-government Gezi Park protests in 2013, sparking protest from governments around the world, including the United States, Germany and France, and NGOs such as Amnesty International.