Congress pushes Biden to pressure Turkey on human rights

Letter indicates Ankara still highly unpopular in the new US Congress

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan greets members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) as he arrives a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Turkey, February 10, 2021. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/PPO/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

A majority of US senators are asking President Joe Biden to pressure President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over Turkey’s deteriorating human rights record.

The bipartisan letter, signed by 54 senators on Tuesday, indicates that Turkey still remains outside the good graces of the new Congress on human rights issues as well as on several points of geopolitical tension.

“Turkey remains an important ally in a significant region of the world, and it is precisely for this reason that we write to you today,” wrote the senators, led by Democrat Ron Wyden and Republican Marco Rubio.

“We believe that the United States must hold allies and partners to a higher standard and speak frankly with them about issues of human rights and democratic backsliding.

“We urge you to emphasise to President Erdogan and his administration that they should immediately end their crackdown on dissent at home and abroad, release political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, and reverse their authoritarian course.”

The letter also references Turkey's restrictions on independent media, judicial purges, attacks on US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria, support for Azerbaijan in its war with Armenia and purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system.

It also condemns Turkey's attempts to pressure the US and Europe into extraditing Mr Erdogan's critics, including NBA star Enes Kanter.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan discussed several of the issues laid out in the Senate letter with his Turkish counterpart, Ibrahim Kalin, in their first official phone call on February 3.

Although statements about the call from both Washington and Ankara were cordial, both countries found themselves publicly sparring through strongly worded statements shortly after the conversation.

On the same day as the call, State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned anti-LGBT remarks made by Turkish interior minister Suleyman Soylu and a government crackdown on student-led demonstrations.

Mr Soylu had called anti-Erdogan protesters at Istanbul’s Bogazici University “LGBT deviants”. His remarks came after students created a poster depicting rainbow LGBT pride flags flying over the Kaaba in Makkah.

Turkish authorities have responded violently to the student protesters and made mass arrests after demonstrations erupted following Mr Erdogan's appointment of a conservative rector to lead the school.

“We are concerned by detentions of students and other demonstrators and strongly condemn the anti-LGBTQI rhetoric surrounding the demonstrations,” said Mr Price. “Freedom of expression, even speech that some may find uncomfortable, is a critical component of a vibrant, functioning democracy that must be protected.”

Two days later, Mr Soylu repeated unsubstantiated accusations that the US had backed the failed 2016 coup against Mr Erdogan – drawing another rebuke from Mr Price.

"These remarks and other unfounded and irresponsible claims of US responsibility for events in Turkey are inconsistent with Turkey's status as a Nato ally and strategic partner of the United States," Mr Price said.

Mr Price on Wednesday urged Turkey to release Turkish businessman Osman Kavala.

“The United States again calls on Turkey to immediately release Osman Kavala from detention,” he said. “The specious charges against Kavala, his ongoing detention and the continuing delays in the conclusion of his trial, including through the merger of cases against him, undermine respect for the rule of law and democracy.”

The war of words comes as the US continues to maintain sanctions on Turkey. After more than a year of stalling, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Ankara in December for the purchase of the S-400 missile defence system, as required under a Russia sanctions law that Congress passed in 2017.

The sanctions include a ban on all US export licenses and authorisations on Ankara’s military procurement agency, and an asset freeze and visa restrictions on several of its officers.

Congress had pushed for even harsher sanctions in 2019 following Turkey’s attacks on the Syrian Kurds.

Although the House passed a harsh Turkey sanctions bill 403-16, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell did not put the legislation on the floor for a vote in the upper chamber amid opposition from the Trump administration.

And while Mr McConnell did not sign the letter on Tuesday, he no longer controls the Senate, following last year’s US election.

But his Democratic counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, did sign the letter – a potentially ominous sign for Ankara.