Congress urges Biden to see human rights abuses while formulating Turkey policy

Congress urges Biden to see human rights abuses while formulating Turkey policy
Joe Biden meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Aug. 25, 2016. (AP Photo)
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Updated 02 March 2021

Congress urges Biden to see human rights abuses while formulating Turkey policy

Congress urges Biden to see human rights abuses while formulating Turkey policy
  • Turkey’s politically-motivated judicial proceedings against opposition lawmakers has been on the radar for a long time
  • Ankara recently made some steps to improve relations with Washington over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system

ANKARA: In a bipartisan letter penned by 170 members of the US Congress to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, American lawmakers have urged President Joe Biden’s administration to consider the “troubling human rights abuses” in Turkey. 

“President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party have used their nearly two decades in power to weaken Turkey’s judiciary, install political allies in key military and intelligence positions, crack down on free speech and (the) free press,” the letter said.

Dated Feb. 26 but made public on March 1, the letter asks Washington to formulate its policy regarding Turkey considering human rights, saying that the Erdogan administration has strained the bilateral relationship. 

“Strategic issues have rightfully received significant attention in our bilateral relationship, but the gross violation of human rights and democratic backsliding taking place in Turkey are also of significant concern,” the letter said, making a specific reference to the May 2017 assault on peaceful protesters and federal employees by Turkish security forces during Erdogan’s visit to Washington.

The letter’s timing coincides with the common declaration of Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists, and the Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project on Monday, criticizing the Turkish government’s failure to comply with a binding European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) order to release Turkish activist Osman Kavala.

The letter also came a day before Turkey announced a much-awaited reform plan that only included vague commitments to launch a “Human Rights Action Plan,” with no clarification about the situation of jailed activists and politicians. 

Washington previously urged Ankara to respect the ECHR’s rulings to release Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas and Kavala. 

Turkey’s politically-motivated judicial proceedings against opposition lawmakers, as well as the debates around the closure of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), have been on the radar for a long time. 

Indeed, just after the announcement of the “Human Rights Action Plan,” the Court of Cassation launched an investigation into the HDP and requested the summary of proceedings pertaining to its lawmakers — a strong sign that the government is in a rush to shut down the third largest party in the Turkish Parliament. 

Ankara recently made some steps to improve relations with Washington, especially through an expensive lobbying campaign to bypass the deadlock over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system that resulted in the removal of Turkey from the US F-35 fighter jet program. 

“Within the bigger picture, promotion of democracy and human rights, as well as freedoms in Turkey, will for the first time be on the agenda of the US administration,” Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish academic from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Arab News. 

“Previously, US administrations usually paid lip service, making statements but always separating strategic ties from the democracy and human rights portfolio. But now it is not really possible,” he said. 

According to Cagaptay, among American allies, together with Hungary, Turkey is the country suffering the most from democratic erosion and the curtailment of checks and balances, and for the Biden administration, strengthening democracy abroad has become a vital component for strengthening faith in the democratic process at home. 

While managing differences and expanding areas of cooperation will also be other legs of Turkish-American relations in the new period, democracy will occupy the largest part, experts note. 

“Congress is currently the most powerful focal point of anti-Turkish voices, especially after the purchase of the Russian missile defense system. CAATSA legislation, according to which Turkey was sanctioned for its S-400 acquisition, was written by Congress itself. Turkey is the first country to defy this legislation. Turkey is seen in Congress as the second most problematic country after Russia,” Cagaptay said. 

Therefore, he added, even if the Biden administration were to reset with Turkey, it will be very hard for US-Turkish relations to gain a semblance of normality because, however the White House reaches out to Ankara, Congress will constantly check and temper it.

Jonathan Katz, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, agrees. 

“While not the only challenges on the agenda, human rights and democratic backsliding will definitely be an area of high-level focus with Turkish officials for the Biden administration and US Congress,” he told Arab News. 

According to Katz, it is clear based on the two recent congressional letters in the Senate and House that there is a ramped-up effort to address what many see as Erdogan pushing Turkey closer toward being an autocracy, and away from being a stalwart NATO ally that shares a US and transatlantic security and political agenda. 

“Turkey’s government carrying out and implementing new reforms would be seen as positive in Washington but there is deep suspicion that these efforts are ‘window dressing’ only meant to strengthen Erdogan politically,” he said. 


Gasoline distribution returning to normal after cyberattack – state media

Gasoline distribution returning to normal after cyberattack – state media
Updated 5 sec ago

Gasoline distribution returning to normal after cyberattack – state media

Gasoline distribution returning to normal after cyberattack – state media
  • Details of the attack and its source are under investigation
DUBAI: Iran’s state news agency IRNA reported on Wednesday that gasoline distribution is returning to normal a day after a cyberattack which affected 4,300 gas stations across the country.
The details of the attack and its source are under investigation, Abul-Hassan Firouzabadi, the Secretary of the Supreme Council to Regulate Virtual Space, told the news agency.

Lebanon PM says minister’s criticism of Saudi is not government position

Lebanon PM says minister’s criticism of Saudi is not government position
Updated 22 min 54 sec ago

Lebanon PM says minister’s criticism of Saudi is not government position

Lebanon PM says minister’s criticism of Saudi is not government position
  • The Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council said in a statement he rejected Kordahi’s comments

CAIRO: Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati said late on Tuesday that comments made by a member of his cabinet who criticized the Saudi military intervention in Yemen did not reflect the cabinet’s position.
“Lebanon is keen on having the best relations with Saudi Arabia and condemns any interference in its internal affairs,” Mikati said.
Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi said late on Tuesday that comments he made around the Yemen war, which started circulating on social media on Tuesday, were made in an August interview before he joined Mikati’s cabinet.
Saudi and Lebanese relations were tested earlier this year when former Lebanese foreign minister Cherbel Wehbe made comments in a television interview about how Gulf states were to blame for the rise of Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Wehbe resigned over the comments in May.
In April, Saudi Arabia banned the imports of fruit and vegetables from Lebanon claiming shipments were used for drug smuggling. The ban weighed heavily on a Lebanese economy struggling with the worst financial crises in modern times.
Late on Tuesday, Interior Minister Bassem Mawlawi also made a statement, after the controversy over Kordahi’s comments, emphasizing the strong relations between the two countries followed by a statement by the foreign minister, who also supported Saudi ties.
The Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council said in a statement on Wednesday he rejected Kordahi’s comments adding they reflected little understanding and a superficial reading of the events in Yemen.
Gulf monarchies, who have traditionally channeled funds into Lebanon, have been loathe to come to its rescue amidst its economic meltdown so far, alarmed by the rising influence of the Iran-backed Hezbollah group.


Saudi Arabia issues calming statement as Lebanese tensions rise over port explosion case

Saudi Arabia issues calming statement as Lebanese tensions rise over port explosion case
Updated 27 October 2021

Saudi Arabia issues calming statement as Lebanese tensions rise over port explosion case

Saudi Arabia issues calming statement as Lebanese tensions rise over port explosion case
  • Politicians denounce intelligence office’s decision to summon Geagea in connection with October violence
  • Lebanon’s grand mufti thanks Saudi Arabia for message of solidarity as factions continue to bicker and issue threats

BEIRUT: Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Lebanon Waleed Bukhari told Lebanese religious figures on Tuesday that the Kingdom “cares for Lebanon’s security, stability, institutions and co-existence between Christians and Muslims.”

The Saudi embassy’s media office said: “There is no legitimacy for the discourse of strife, nor for one that goes against Lebanon’s Arab identity.”

This was the first Saudi statement since the bloody clashes in Tayouneh on Oct. 14.

At least seven people were killed in the violence in Beirut amid a protest organized by Hezbollah and its allies against the lead judge probing last year’s blast at the city’s port.

The protestors, gathered by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, demanded the removal of Judge Tarek Bitar from the investigation.

According to the embassy’s statement, Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian “expressed his appreciation for the Kingdom, led by King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for never abandoning Lebanon and its people, despite the unfair stances against the Kingdom by some Lebanese parties that only represent themselves.”

Sheikh Derian added that “the Saudi-Lebanese relations have always been and will remain solid regardless of any offensive speeches because our relations are above these speeches and Saudi Arabia will always see Lebanon as an Arab brotherly country.”

The statement comes after the Intelligence Directorate summoned the head of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, to the Defense Ministry on Wednesday as part of the investigation into the bloodshed in Tayouneh.

The summoning was the motivation for Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi’s spontaneous visits on Tuesday to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Najib Mikati and President Michel Aoun.

Al-Rahi denounced “the summoning of Geagea only by the Intelligence Directorate to testify.”

Charles Jabbour from the Lebanese Forces party told Arab News that “Geagea will not appear at the Defense Ministry on Wednesday.

“They should start with summoning Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah. All parties should give testimonies, beginning with the party that called for the demonstration. Only when a judge dares to summon Nasrallah, will we be able to talk about a state and a judiciary in Lebanon.”

The move to summon Geagea was condemned by several political figures.

Former Premier Saad Hariri refused “to engage in an absurd conflict and the frontlines of a civil war and sectarian divisions.”

He added: “Announcing that Dr. Geagea was informed to appear before the Intelligence Directorate via a plastered notification is absurd and leads the country into further division along with using state machinery for revenge politics.”

Former Premier Fouad Siniora also denounced “the bias of the judicial authorities in the military court over the deplorable Tayouneh events and the continuing violations of the constitutions by those who were entrusted with the task of preserving and protecting it.”

Siniora rejected “the practices seeking to use the judiciary for reprisals against political opponents, and not for its main mission: To seek the truth and achieve justice.”

Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblat criticized the “selectivity instead of a transparent and just investigation for a comprehensive justice.”

He said: “All those who fired shots in the Tayouneh events should be arrested, without discrimination, and this destructive and futile political dispute must be ended.”

Samy Gemayel, head of the Lebanese Kataeb Party, announced his rejection to “all the means Hezbollah and the Amal Movement have resorted to in hampering the investigation into the Beirut port blast.”

Hezbollah accused Geagea of firing the first shot on Oct. 14 at the demonstrators who penetrated the anti-Hezbollah and Christian-majority Ain Remaneh area.

Former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who is also a defendant in the Beirut port explosion investigation, visited Sheikh Derian on Tuesday, reiterating his demand “to either lift immunity from everyone without exception, or adopt the legal and constitutional mechanisms in force in the Supreme Council for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers.”

So far, all the politicians who have been accused of being involved in the Beirut port blast have declined to appear before Judge Bitar.

Amal Movement and Hezbollah ministers have refused to attend Cabinet sessions unless Judge Bitar is removed and the investigations into Tayouneh are halted, causing a governmental paralysis at a time when Lebanon is in desperate need of reforms to unblock the international aid that would lessen its dire economic situation.

Prime Minister Mikati hoped on Tuesday that “Cabinet meetings will resume as soon as possible to make the decisions required to activate the work of commissions and committees and do what is needed from the government.”

Mikati added that he hoped his government would supervise “the parliamentary elections with full integrity, to enable these elections to renew the political life in Lebanon.”

The joint parliamentary committees held a session on Tuesday and voted to keep the electoral law as it was, thus rejecting Aoun’s proposal to make amendments.

Aoun had objected to holding the elections on March 27 and to the proposals to change the expatriate voting formula by canceling the six seats allocated for Lebanese voters who live abroad.


Damascus bookshops disappear as crisis hits culture

Damascus bookshops disappear as crisis hits culture
Updated 27 October 2021

Damascus bookshops disappear as crisis hits culture

Damascus bookshops disappear as crisis hits culture
  • Damascus boasted an abundance of busy bookshops and publishing houses printing and distributing original and translated works

DAMASCUS: The Damascus bookshops and publishing houses that once stood as beacons of Syria’s intellectual life are being replaced with shoe shops and money changers, as culture falls casualty to crisis.

Syria is home to some of the Arab world’s literary giants, and Damascus boasted an abundance of busy bookshops and publishing houses printing and distributing original and translated works. But the city’s literary flare has faded.

A decade-old civil war, a chronic economic crisis and a creative brain drain that has deprived Syria of some of its best writers and many of their readers, have compounded worldwide problems facing the industry, such as the growing popularity of e-books. “People can’t afford to read and bookstores can’t cover the expenses of staying open,” said Muhammad Salem Al-Nouri, 71, who inherited one of the capital’s oldest bookshops from his father.

Last month, the iconic Nobel bookshop in Damascus, founded in 1970, closed its doors.

The Al-Yaqza bookshop, founded in 1939, shut seven years ago, with a shoe store now taking its place.

A money exchange office has replaced the Maysalun bookshop which was open for four decades.

The Al-Nouri bookstore, founded in 1930, is at risk of meeting the same fate.

“We wanted it to remain for our children and grandchildren,” Nouri told AFP. “But the Al-Nouri bookshop is threatened with closure, as are other bookstores.”

The Nouri family currently runs two bookshops in central Damascus.

Three years ago, the family was forced to close a third bookshop they had opened in the capital in 2000 because of poor sales and growing costs.

Its stock remains in place, gathering dust on fully stacked shelves.

On a wooden desk, old photos of celebrity customers, including politicians, artists and poets, are placed on display.

For Sami Hamdan, 40, the cultural heyday of the 1950s and 1960s is long gone. “The war has destroyed what was left” of a cultural scene that was already in retreat, said the former owner of the Al-Yaqza bookstore.

With 90 percent of the population living below the poverty line and prices skyrocketing in the face of the plummeting value of the Syrian pound, “no one is going to invest in a bookshop during conflict,” Hamdan told AFP.

For Khalil Haddad of the Dar Oussama publishing house, books have become a “luxury” for Syrians.

Surging printing costs and logistical difficulties linked to power cuts have combined to make books too expensive for most, the 70-year-old told AFP.

“People’s priorities are food and housing,” he said.


Iraq blames Iran for drastic decline in river flow

Iraq blames Iran for drastic decline in river flow
Updated 27 October 2021

Iraq blames Iran for drastic decline in river flow

Iraq blames Iran for drastic decline in river flow
  • The Sirwan river begins in Iran, flowing to Darbandikhan Dam in northeastern Iraq before going through the rural province of Diyala and joining the Tigris

DARBANDIKHAN, Iraq: Iraqi officials warned Tuesday of a drastic drop in the flow of water in a river from Iran due to low rainfall and dam-building in the neighboring Islamic republic.

The Sirwan river begins in Iran, flowing to Darbandikhan Dam in northeastern Iraq before going through the rural province of Diyala and joining the Tigris.

“There has been an unprecedented decline,” said Rahman Khani, the dam’s director. “The water level has fallen by 7.5 meters in one year.”

The drop was attributed to low precipitation and “the building of more dams in Iran which retain water,” he told AFP.

Khani said the dam had this year received 900 million cubic meters of water — a fraction of the annual average of 4.7 billion cubic meters.

The decline had led to a 30 percent fall in electricity production from the dam, he added, warning against the impact on agriculture in Diyala province.

Iraq — which relies on Iran for much of its electricity — has suffered extreme water shortages in many areas in recent years.

This is owing in large part to upstream dam-building in Iran and Turkey, but also to factors relating to climate change and droughts, which have affected the wider region.

The situation has prompted Iraq’s Water Resources Minister, Mahdi Al-Hamdani, to call on his government to file a complaint against Iran at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

A foreign ministry spokesperson refused to comment on the matter.

Aoun Thiab, a senior adviser at the water ministry, said Iran was “violating international law by diverting a river flow” based on the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention on the use of water that crosses international borders.

Thiab acknowledged however that seeking justice would be “a political decision and not a technical one.

“The waters of the Sirwan river have been completely cut off,” he told AFP.

Iran has also its own decline in water levels due to drought, said a report from the country’s space agency cited by Mehr news agency.

On Tuesday, an official said Tehran was facing its worst drought in 50 years as he reported a 97 percent drop in monthly rainfall compared with last year.

The Iranian capital has had 0.4 millimeters of rain since Sept. 23, compared with 14.3 mm over the same period in 2020, said Mohammad Shahriari, deputy director of the company that supplies the region.

“Groundwater and surface water are at a critical state and there has not been a similar drought for the past 50 years,” he was quoted as saying by Iran’s ISNA news agency.

In July, deadly protests broke out in the drought-hit southwestern province of Khuzestan after people took to the streets to vent their anger over water shortages.