Barkey, Aydıntaşbaş reveal details of controversial dinner with Osman Kavala

Istanbul-born American scholar Henri Barkey and Turkish journalist Aslı Aydıntaşbaş both issued statements on the dinner that was the main piece of evidence in the case against Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala, who has been behind bars since November 2017.

The dinner came back into the national limelight when main opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) representative in the United States, Yurter Özcan, said it had been cited as evidence to keep Kavala in prison on charges of espionage.

“Is it criminal to have dinner with somebody? In Turkey, yes. Osman Kavala has been in prison for five years. In the prosecutor’s indictment, one of the claims against him is that he had dinner with Henri Barkey in Karaköy on July 18, 2016. Both have stated they have not had dinner together,” Özcan said in a tweet on July 27.

“No journalist asked who these people did have dinner with that night. There was no serious investigation, not even a glance at the CCTV. The person who was with Henri Barkey didn’t even come out to say, ‘I was at dinner with Henri that night. Osman Kavala came to greet me. They do not know each other’. The habit of not taking responsibility has reached nauseating levels in Turkey,” the representative continued.

“I was at dinner with a well-known Turkish journalist that night, not Kavala,” Barkey said when he was asked about Özcan’s comments. “Considering the situation in Turkey, I do not believe it is right for me to declare who this person was,” he told news website Gerçek Gündem two days later.

“On the other hand, it is regrettable that Osman Kavala has been behind bars for five years, and was kept in prison after he was acquitted because of our encounter that night,” the scholar continued.

Upon his arrest in 2017, Kavala was charged with attempting to overthrow the government via the massive anti-government protests of 2013, dubbed the Gezi Park protests after the central urban park they set out to protect. He was acquitted of coup plotting charges in February 2020, but was hit with another arrest order before he could be released, this time for charges of espionage over his alleged dealings with Barkey.

After Barkey’s comments, Özcan spoke again to reveal in an interview that the journalist in question was Aydıntaşbaş, who initially denied any connection.

“There is this claim, but I have no relation to this incident,” Aydıntaşbaş told a reporter. She also said she knew Barkey, because “everybody knew him. He used to come to the Turkish embassy in Washington. He would meet with officials, ministers.”

On Saturday, Barkey confirmed that the dinner had been with Aydıntaşbaş.

“I was at the Karaköy restaurant on Jul 18, 2016, to have dinner with a friend and journalist, Aslı Aydıntaşbaş. I had a chance encounter with the civil society activist, Osman Kavala, at the Karaköy restaurant that same evening. Mr Kavala and I chatted for a few minutes before I proceeded to my dinner with Ms Aydıntaşbaş,” Barkey said in a statement.

“Starting in 2018 the government press concocted this chance meeting with Mr Kavala into a vast conspiracy that culminated in October 2020 with state prosecutors issuing an absurd and fantastical indictment accusing the both of us of coup plotting,” he continued.

Barkey said the charges had been “just a ruse to continue (Kavala’s) detention”.

“Denying the facts will not change reality. It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in Turkey when a mere dinner can become the object of such controversy,” the scholar concluded.

Following Barkey’s statement, Aydıntaşbaş said she was “facing an operation in bad faith”.

“I have remained silent about the recent claims about myself, which I have no doubt that are in bad faith, to avoid polemics. Osman Kavala knew about this,” the journalist said. She continued:

“Dear Osman is my friend. He is not in prison for being in the same restaurant with a U.S. academic as it has been alleged. Osman Kavala and his friends were convicted in the Gezi trial. The second case against him that was put forth to keep him behind bars is not based on the thesis that he had dinner with this person. And, Kavala has been acquitted of this case.”

“It is not a crime that people’s paths crossed in the same restaurant in Istanbul days after July 15. It is not a secret either. The indictment is not based on this. I regret the baseless allegations against my person, and call on those who were used in them to have mercy,” Aydıntaşbaş concluded.

In a defence statement during one of the hearings of his case, Kavala said he had known Barkey in passing. “We met at a conference, and we do not know each other outside of that. I have organised an art show with his sister in the past,” Kavala said. “None of this is secret information. The prosecution could have obtained a list of conferences (Barkey) attended via a simple Google search. These are conferences attended by state officials. We attended the same one four years ago, as well as a forum in Istanbul. There were some 250 attendants.”

In his defence Kavala also said he did not meet the physical requirements to commit the alleged crime of espionage. “I have no access to any public officials or state secrets,” he said.

The reason Barkey was accused of involvement with the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016 is an academic meeting in the Kültür University, Kavala said. “I was not invited to this meeting, and so I did not attend.”

Charges of coup plotting evolving into espionage charges two years after the fact is “completely against the natural progression of a judicial process”, Kavala said. “There are no conceptual relation between these two charges. And I have no contribution to any coup attempt.”

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