US calls for Turkey to release jailed philanthropist

Aaron Schwartz

State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Wednesday called for Turkey to immediately release the jailed Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala and criticized as baseless charges against an American citizen that are included in Kavala’s case.

Kavala is one of a number of prominent figures amid thousands of individuals who were swept up in mass arrests by the Turkish government following the failed 2016 coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Price, in his statement, described as “specious” allegations that Kavala attempted to overthrow the government and demanded his immediate release in line with a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in December 2019, considered legally binding, that criticized the allegations as lacking sufficient evidence and his detention violating human rights conventions.

The State Department spokesperson further noted “with concern” an indictment against a noted American academic, Henri Barkey, that charged him as collaborating with Kavala. Price called these allegations “baseless.”

“We call on Turkey to resolve his case in a just, transparent, and rapid manner,” Price said.

The statement from the State Department comes amid a call from more than 50 senators from both sides of the aisle for President Biden to take a stronger stand against Turkey to respect human rights and denounce Turkish actions criticized as authoritarian and combative.

Price addressed the letter in a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, calling Turkey a “longstanding and valued NATO ally” and said the U.S. seeks cooperation on areas of common priorities and will engage in dialogue to address disagreements.

Turkey is a member of the international alliance NATO spearheaded by the U.S., but has caused rancor in the organization over the past few years over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rolling back of democratic freedoms in his country and its involvement in a host of military conflicts.

The bipartisan letter to the president, sent Tuesday, was led by Sens. Ron Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and joined by more than 50 senators, called out the Turkish president for carrying out a “belligerent and combative” foreign policy that has threatened U.S. interests while he has dangerously rolled back domestic democratic freedoms.

The senators called for Biden to directly urge Erdoğan to release political prisoners and end a crackdown on political dissidents at home and abroad.

“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,” the senators wrote.

“We urge you to emphasize to President Erdoğan 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.”

Turkish police have arrested and detained tens of thousands of individuals since 2016 that the government has accused of participating in the failed-coup attempt that year.

Many of those arrested have been charged under anti-terrorism laws that Freedom House, an organization monitoring democracy worldwide, has criticized as being based on weak circumstantial evidence, secret testimony and guilt by association.

And since January, Turkish police have arrested hundreds of protesters in Istanbul, Ankara and other cities amid growing demonstrations against the Turkish president and that are an outgrowth of opposition to the president’s appointment of a university rector that protesters reportedly criticized as undemocratic.

“Turkish President Recep Tayipp Erdoğan has taken the country down an increasingly authoritarian path,” the senators wrote.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are increasingly supportive of the U.S. imposing costs on Turkey for ongoing provocative actions, over its involvement on the side of Azerbaijan during fighting with Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh; and its confrontations with Greece and Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean over natural gas exploration.

Lawmakers also condemned Turkey’s 2019 offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces allied with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS after former President Trump ordered a drawdown of troops in the region.

Congress took issue with the Trump administration’s delay to impose mandatory sanctions on Turkey over its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, which were eventually put in place in December 2020 after what the former administration said was a campaign aimed at getting Ankara to reverse its purchase.

Price, speaking at the State Department, said the Biden administration continues to urge Turkey not to maintain the S-400.

The senators in their letter also raised the issue that Erdoğan has “attempted to pressure” the U.S. and other countries to extradite Turkish nationals that the Turkish president accuses of being involved in the 2016 failed coup attempt.

They further criticize Erdoğan for attempts to “silence” outspoken critic Enes Kanter, a Turkish national and U.S. professional basketball player who resides in the U.S., by threatening and arresting his family members and issuing an INTERPOL red notice — an international arrest warrant — against the athlete.

Biden has yet to speak by phone with the Turkish president, but has earlier signaled he would take a tougher stance on Turkey. He called out Ankara’s participation on the side of Azerbaijan in an outbreak of conflict with Armenia in September when he was the Democratic presidential nominee.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with senior Erdogan advisor Ibrahim Kalin on February 2, in which he raised concerns over the S-400 missile defense system undermines the strength of the NATO alliance; and welcomed cooperation on regional concerns in the eastern Mediterranean.

Sullivan also “underscored the Biden administration’s broad commitment to supporting democratic institutions and the rule of law,” according to a read out of the call. 

Tags Ankara Antony Blinken Donald Trump Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Marco Rubio NATO Ned Price Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Ron Wyden Turkey
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