Despite the sharp deterioration in human rights under his leadership, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is being accorded a state visit to Britain next week, including a meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May and with the Queen. Undoubtedly, May would prefer the discussion focus on investment, trade, and Syria, but the scale of repression underway in Turkey makes it impossible to ignore. She should use the moment to urge an end to the Turkish government’s brutal crackdown on opponents and critics.
The visit comes ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24 in which Erdogan seeks to renew his mandate with greatly enhanced powers. The elections themselves won’t be credible the UN’s human rights chief has said, unless the 22 month state of emergency is lifted.
Media freedom is being decimated: Journalists and critics on social media are being prosecuted and more than 170 reporters, writers, and media workers are in jail, most of them awaiting verdicts. The crackdown, along with takeovers and closures of media outlets, means that most of the media – especially television – is now a propaganda machine for Erdogan’s ruling AKP party and the government.
Opposition parties face big obstacles in contesting the election, disadvantaged in their election campaigning. The country’s second opposition party in parliament, the left-leaning, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has been hardest hit. Nine of its parliamentarians are in prison and eleven have been stripped of their parliamentary seats in politically motivated cases. An MP from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) was convicted and jailed in February in a politically motivated case. The former HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş is standing as a presidential candidate from his prison cell.
Civil society and human rights defenders face enormous pressure with countless more “terrorism” trials and convictions, defenders like Amnesty International Turkey’s chair Taner Kılıç behind bars already for nearly a year, and some women’s rights associations arbitrarily closed down by the government.
May has said that a Brexit Britain will be a Global Britain, and that British foreign policy is defined by values as well as interests. Turkey is a good test of this commitment. It’s time for May to show some backbone and press Erdogan to end these abuses. May should call publicly for the release of all those Turkish journalists, politicians, and human rights defenders who have been unjustly imprisoned, and make clear Britain will not licence further military equipment for Turkey that might be used to violate human rights.