Turkey’s detention of “prominent human rights defenders” drew a rebuke from the State Department on Thursday, on the cusp of a major international summit.
“As we have expressed on numerous occasions, persistent curbs on freedom of expression erode the foundations of democratic society,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. “More voices, not fewer, are necessary in challenging times.”
Turkish police detained the director of the local Amnesty International and several other activists on Wednesday, weeks after seizing another Amnesty International leader. The latest round-up nearly coincides with the G-20 summit in Germany, taking place this week. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been criticized by domestic opponents and western leaders for curtailing democratic freedoms, is attending the conference. And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will travel to Turkey following the summit.
“As with past arrests of prominent human rights defenders, journalists, academics, and activists, we underscore the importance of respecting due process and individual rights, as enshrined in the Turkish Constitution, and consistent with Turkey’s own international commitments,” Nauert said.
Amnesty International denounced the “incommunicado detention” of Idil Eser, who directs the group’s Turkish affiliate, and urged Western leaders to raise the issue at the G-20 summit.
“World leaders currently sitting in Hamburg have been remarkably tolerant of Turkey’s human rights meltdown,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary general. “With President Erdogan now in their midst, this would be a good time to speak out firmly and call for the release of all human rights defenders currently behind bars.”
Erdogan and western leaders, particularly in Germany, have clashed over refusals to allow his administration to hold rallies with Turkish expatriates in Europe. Erdogan relied on expatriate votes to help win a constitutional referendum that expanded his power as president.
“Germany is committing suicide,” Erdogan told Die Zeit, a German weekly, in an interview published Wednesday. “I mean, it’s a problem that I am not allowed to share my thoughts with my citizens. OK, if not, then we won’t speak. We’ll take part in the G-20 meeting and say what we have to say there, and then return home. But I cannot be silenced! I speak on Turkish television, and they also broadcast in Germany. They should also ban these broadcasts in Germany!”
Erdogan also declined to say if he trusts President Trump more than Russian President Vladimir Putin, a remarkable demurral given his leadership of a NATO member country. The U.S.-Turkey relationship has been strained in recent years, as Erdogan took an authoritarian turn and American military leaders working to defeat the Islamic State cooperated with an ethnic minority group that Turkey considers a terrorist organization. Tillerson is traveling to Turkey next week in part to maintain U.S.-Turkish unity as the anti-ISIS fight in Syria reaches an end stage.
“[F]or the United States, Turkey is a critical partner, and the closer cooperation and contact we have with them on issues of concern, particularly the fight against ISIS, the better,” a senior State Department official told reporters Wednesday. “And even if we don’t agree all the time, that relationship is worth investing in for progress and results.”