Turkey may have improved prospects for rapprochement with Europe with the release of two high-profile government critics from detention ahead of a key meeting with EU leaders but further calls by Brussels to widen free speech in Turkey and other sources of friction suggest normalisation is uncertain.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is to meet with EU leaders in the Bulgarian Black Sea resort of Varna on March 26 for a summit aimed at resettingTurkish-European ties after years of crises over Turkey’s human rights record and Ankara’s complaints of EU Islamophobia.
A failed coup attempt in 2016 in Turkey led to a massive wave of arrests of suspected Erdogan critics, putting more than 50,000 people in detention and leading to the dismissal of around 150,000 public sector employees.
In a decision that could improve Turkey’s chances of a new beginning with the European Union, a court at a vast prison complex in Silivri outside Istanbul on March 9 ordered the release of Ahmet Sik, a prominent reporter of the Cumhuriyet opposition daily, and Murat Sabuncu, the paper’s editor. The two had been in detention for almost 500 days without a verdict.
Akin Atalay, chairman of the newspaper’s executive board, remains behind bars at least until the next trial date on March 16. Sik and Sabuncu were freed despite prosecutors’ demands they be kept behind bars, which is rare in cases with high political significance in Turkey.
Howard Eissenstat, associate professor at St Lawrence University in New York and non-resident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington, said in an interview that the release of Sik and Sabuncu could be seen “as a sign that Turkey recognises the danger that high-profile cases pose for its standing abroad and how they limit the chances of a rapprochement with Europe.”
The Cumhuriyet employees are accused of supporting the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Islamic cleric and former Erdogan ally who is seen by Ankara as the mastermind behind the 2016 coup attempt. The accused journalists could face 43 years in prison if convicted.
Rights activists said charges against 17 defendants, 16 of whom have been freed pending the outcome of the trial, were drummed up to silence Erdogan critics.
The reporters are accused of supporting Gulen’s group as well as the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the left-extremist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), organisations that are ideologically opposed to one another. Sik was detained for a year in 2011 for criticising the Gulen movement when the cleric was Erdogan’s political partner.
Even as Sik and Sabuncu left prison, courts in Turkey continued their crackdown on dissent. Also on March 9, Turkey’s top appeals court in Ankara ordered the retrial of Can Dundar, another former editor of Cumhuriyet, and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul, seeking up to 20 years in prison for espionage. A day earlier, another court sentenced 25 journalists from former pro-Gulen media outlets to prison sentences of up to seven-and-a-half years each.
Ankara had shrugged off EU criticism of the crackdown for a long time but recently became more receptive to demands from Brussels because Turkey was increasingly isolated in the Middle East and estranged from the United States due to a row over Syria. Under a 2016 deal to stop the flow of refugees via Turkey to Europe, Ankara committed to tightening controls over its sea border with Greece and the European Union said it would look at granting visa-free travel for Turks in Europe.
Securing free travel for its citizens in Europe and a new push for stalled EU membership talks are Ankara’s top priorities for the Varna summit but the European Union says Turkey must fulfil a number of criteria first. One key condition is strengthening free speech by amending Turkey’s anti-terror law to prevent trials against academics, journalists and others for spreading “terrorist propaganda” with comments that are critical of the government. The Turkish leadership has said it is ready to change the law but has not done so.
Ankara was aware of the importance of good ties with Europe, Eissenstat said, adding: “Turkey needs the European Union. Europe is an immensely important source of economic support and direct investment.”
Still, Eissenstat said he was sceptical about the possibility of a broader rapprochement. EU officials warned Turkey that improved relations and the Varna summit itself are at risk because of Ankara’s tensions with EU members Greece and Cyprus.
Last month a Turkish Navy vessel rammed a Greek Coast Guard boat in a disputed area of the Aegean. Other Turkish Navy ships disrupted exploratory drilling for energy resources in waters off Cyprus. The actions prompted European Council President Donald Tusk to say that European officials could cancel the Varna meeting. More recently, Turkey arrested two Greek soldiers on espionage charges. Athens said the men are being held as “hostages” and demanded their release.
“Erdogan feels that the demonstration of toughness and militancy gets results,” Eissenstat said. “This almost ensures new crises and makes ‘normalisation’ extremely difficult.”
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
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