ISTANBUL: Several members of the US Congress have sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the Turkish government to release political prisoners.
In the letter, the members of Congress, including Ilhan Omar, also requested that Washington put conditions on US financial and material assistance to Turkey to ensure that the release of prisoners was carried out fairly.
“We urge you to engage directly with the Turkish government on its COVID-19 prison policy to insist that release policies are offered equitably and consistently, and that certain groups in detention — particularly journalists, activists and other political prisoners — are not excluded for political purposes,” the Congress members said.
The letter referred to Turkey’s recently passed amnesty law that released tens of thousands of prisoners as a measure against overcrowding in jails. However, the law was criticized for excluding those jailed on broadly applied terror charges that criminalized all dissidents, including journalists, politicians and right activists.
“As we know from news media reports and human rights groups, many of those arrested on such charges include journalists, students, civil society leaders, human rights advocates and political opposition leaders who do not appear to either have demonstrable links to acts of terror or treason, or close and continuing associations with those engaged in such acts,” the Congress members said.
The latest 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices from the US State Department has criticized broad anti-terror legislation for restricting fundamental freedoms and the rule of law in Turkey, and documented several arbitrary arrest and detentions.
However, Simon Waldman, an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting research fellow at King’s College London, thinks that the letter to the US Secretary of State is unlikely to have any tangible effect.
“It is late. Ankara’s decision to exclude political prisoners was already made one month ago and the members of Congress who signed the letter have little chance of influencing Mike Pompeo let alone the Oval Office,” he told Arab News.
According to Waldman, Washington currently has little sway over Turkey’s policies toward political prisoners, and has no appetite for taking up the matter unless they are US nationals.
“The US has currently has little sway over Turkey’s policies toward political prisoners, and has no appetite for taking up the matter unless they are US nationals.”
Simon, Waldman Analyst
Andrew Brunson, a 50-year-old US pastor who was detained in Turkey for almost two years on terrorism charges and released in 2018, strained ties with the two NATO allies and drew the anger of US President Donald Trump who turned the case into a foreign policy priority of Washington toward Ankara.
The release of Brunson was considered to be linked to pressure from Trump as well as members of Congress, and their behind-door deals with Turkish officials to lift the crippling US sanctions that pushed the Turkish lira into freefall against the dollar.
“Washington will view its relations with Ankara based on strategic calculations rather than human rights. The debate in Washington is not the extent to which fundamental freedoms have deteriorated in Turkey but rather the extent to which Turkey fits into US strategic interests,” Waldman said.
Of the 300,000 prisoners in the country, around 50,000 are charged with terrorism — a charge that has been used to oppress the opposition.
Among those imprisoned on terrorism charges are the former leader of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish political party Selahattin Demirtas, Osman Kavala, a prominent philanthropist and businessperson, and four journalists who were arrested for covering a Turkish intelligence officer’s death in Libya.
A recent study by the Turkish Journalists’ Union revealed that about 79 percent of journalists working in Turkey are self-censoring over fear of being arrested under broadly defined terrorism charges.