Germany Chancellor Merkel talks human rights with Turkey’s Erdoğan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan faced criticism over press freedom and human rights violations in Turkey when he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Friday, according to a report by Deutsche Welle (DW).

Merkel said she brought up human rights with the visiting Turkish president, but first, he received full military honors from German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Friday morning.

“I consider the visit very important because when there are differences a personal meeting is vital to resolve them,” Merkel said at a delayed and keenly awaited joint press conference, which Erdoğan reportedly threatened to call off over the potential presence of exiled Turkish journalist Can Dündar, whose extradition Turkey is seeking.

Merkel was under pressure to bring up human rights with Erdoğan on a state visit that has aroused huge controversy amid concerns that President Erdoğan is moving Turkey towards authoritarianism, and she brought up German citizens imprisoned in Turkey in her opening remarks. “I have called for these cases to be resolved as quickly as possible,” she said.

According to DW, Erdoğan for his part glossed over the criticism, insisting that the fundamental point was respect for the Turkish judiciary.

Chancellor Merkel also emphasized the importance of maintaining a good relationship with Turkey and in particular Germany’s interests in “an economically stable Turkey.”

Ties with Germany deteriorated following a controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016 in Turkey to which Ankara has reacted with draconian measures, including jailing journalists, soldiers and public servants, among them several German citizens.

A Turkish government-friendly newspaper, Yeni Asır, reported on Friday that Turkey had already requested the extradition of the journalist Dündar in the run-up to Erdoğan’s visit, along with a “terror list” of 69 names of people wanted by Ankara.

“It will only enhance the peace and security in both countries to do so,” Erdoğan claimed during the press conference.

Dündar, former editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper who has been living in exile in Germany for more than two years, had been condemned to prison in Turkey for an article on weapons supplied to Syria by Turkish intelligence.

According to the German media, he is wanted for spying, betrayal of state secrets and propaganda. A controversy erupted ahead of Friday’s press conference as reports emerged that the German government press office had accredited Dündar — though without giving him the right to ask a question. In the end, Dündar said he would not be taking part in the press conference after Erdoğan threatened to call it off over his presence.

“The fact that Mr. Dündar is not taking part in this conference is a decision he made himself,” Merkel underlined at the briefing.

Erdoğan described Dündar as an “agent who revealed state secrets to the public” who had been sentenced to more than five years in prison. “There is no state or country where it is possible to commit this crime, and it is a crime,” he said.

Elsewhere, the German TAZ newspaper reported that the Turkish Embassy was allowed to decide which Turkish journalists would be accredited. Reporter Aziz Koçyiğit from the left-wing Evrensel newspaper told TAZ that the German Federal Press Office had referred her to the embassy.

The press office said was in line with “internationally practised standards,” though the head of the German foreign journalists’ association, Pascal Thibaut, said he had never heard of embassies deciding which journalists would be allowed to attend press conferences.

Turkey is ranked 157th among 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). If Turkey falls two more places, it will make it to the list of countries on the blacklist, which have the poorest record in press freedom.

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 236 journalists and media workers were in jail as of Sept. 13, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 168 were under arrest pending trial while only 68 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 147 journalists who are living in exile or remain at large in Turkey.

Detaining tens of thousands of people over alleged links to the Gülen movement, the government also closed down some 200 media outlets, including Kurdish news agencies and newspapers, after the coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016.

Also on Friday, Germany’s minister of state for Europe at the Foreign Ministry, Michael Roth, called on Erdoğan to halt the current political trend toward authoritarianism in Turkey. “Our expectations are clear: the release of the German people who have been arrested for political reasons, and at last some movement toward democracy and the rule of law,” he said.

Both Merkel and Roth rejected the idea of Germany providing financial help to the struggling Turkish economy, with Roth stating that many German companies would invest in Turkey again if the country returned to democratic and constitutional principles.

Erdoğan’s visit, which began on Thursday and ends on Saturday after the opening of a central mosque in Cologne, has triggered numerous protests by people demonstrating against the arrest of journalists and government critics in Turkey in the wake of the failed coup.

The organizers of one large protest at Berlin’s Potsdam Square, which was to take place on Friday afternoon under the motto “Erdoğan not welcome,” expected some 10,000 participants.

German President Steinmeier, who will also host Erdogan at a state dinner on Friday evening, said Erdoğan’s visit did not express a normalization of German-Turkish relations but “could be a start.”

Steinmeier said Turkey needs to take concrete steps with regard to the principles of a state of law, adding that pressure on the media, judiciary and labor unions is unacceptable. The German president said only after improvements in these fields could Turkey hope to have close relations with the European Union.

Erdoğan himself has said that his visit aims to improve ties with his “German friends.” However, he claimed Germany is home to thousands of “terrorists” including alleged members of the Gülen movement. Erdoğan said he expected Germany to be more effective in combatting threats posed to Turkey’s security.

Erdoğan said the terrorists included thousands of members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and hundreds of persons affiliated with the Gülen movement. Erdoğan also said he had no right to criticize the German judicial system, just as German officials had no right to criticize Turkey’s.

There has been tension between the two countries over the past year, especially in light of increased powers acquired by President Erdoğan following a controversial referendum in 2017.

The Turkish government has jailed more than 50,000 people, dismissed 150,000 others from state jobs, closed down critical media outlets and arrested dozens of critical journalists in the aftermath of coup bid on July 15, 2016, under the pretext of the anti-coup fight.

More than a dozen German citizens are among those being held in Turkish jails on terrorism charges related to the coup attempt. Merkel said Germany wanted their cases to be resolved as quickly as possible.

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