Turkish hostage-taking has become one of the most pressing problems in relations between Ankara and its Western allies. It is something that everyone knows is happening, but political leaders and diplomats are reluctant to call it by its name.
The most recent case concerns German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel, who was arrested in Turkey in February 2017 on accusations of propaganda for a terrorist organization. Yucel, a correspondent for Die Welt known for his journalism about Turkey’s crackdown, had written articles based on the hacked emails of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law, Energy Minister Berat Albayrak.
His initial arrest warrant was related to those articles, but after his detention, investigators shifted the focus to his coverage of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), especially an interview he had done with PKK leader Cemil Bayik. After more than a year of imprisonment without charge in Turkey, most of it in solitary confinement, he was released on bail on Feb. 16. He left the country as soon as possible. Once on safe ground in Germany, he posted a video of himself holding a copy of the court order he was given when he left jail. The court, he said, had ordered that his detention be prolonged, not terminated. Like his detention, Yucel’s release had all the marks of a political decision by Turkey’s government.
Yücel’s release spurred a passionate argument inside Germany about what the government gave up to get Turkey to let him go. Yücel himself had spoken out from prison opposing any “dirty deal” to free him. Did the German government successfully leverage the threat of suspending arms sales to Ankara? Or did it give in to Turkish demands to resume arms sales in order to free a journalist? Whatever the case, the discussion takes for granted the fact that Germany was forced to engage in de facto hostage negotiations with a NATO ally.
Hostage politics have become so pervasive in Turkey’s relations with the West that when the Syrian Kurdish leader Salih Muslim was detained in Prague last weekend, speculation immediately turned to whether the Czech government would agree to extradite him in exchange for the freedom of two Czechs currently jailed in Turkey for supporting Syrian Kurdish militants. A Czech court released Muslim on Tuesday while the proceedings continue, agreeing to his assurances that he would cooperate with the court while remaining free to travel within the European Union. Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag denounced the court’s move as “very clearly a decision in support of terrorism,” prompting a strongly worded response from the Czech Foreign Ministry.
These hostage politics are most visible in American-Turkish relations.These hostage politics are most visible in American-Turkish relations.
The fates of sever
innocent Americans in Turkish custody have become the subject of blunt demands from the Turkish government. The best known among them is Andrew Brunson, a pastor who has lived in Turkey for two decades tending to a small evangelical congregation in Izmir, and who was arrested in October 2016 on vague allegations that he was connected to the July 2016 coup attempt. He remains in prison over a year later. President Erdogan has explicitly made Brunson an object for trade, saying in September that the United States should swap “a pastor for a pastor,” exchanging his arch-enemy Fethullah Gulen, who resides in Pennsylvania, for Brunson. He’s not the only American in Turkish prison: Last month, Serkan Golge, a NASA scientist with dual citizenship swept up in the post-coup attempt crackdown, was sentenced to over seven years in prison.
This is an unacceptable state of affairs for relations between allies. No citizen of an allied country should have to wonder if Turkey will make their freedom a bargaining chip — and there is currently legislation before Congress that would punish Turkey for this behavior. An amendment to the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs (SFOPS) Appropriations Bill offered by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) would mandate sanctions for Turkish officials found to have engaged in the wrongful or unlawful prolonged detention of American citizens. The sanctions are simple: They would require that the secretary of state identify the officials, subject to a national security waiver or the use of a classified annex to provide the names to Congress without making them public, and that such officials be denied entry into the United States. This is a clear and logical response to hostage-taking, and should be retained in the omnibus appropriations bill for the current financial year that is now being negotiated.
As Sen. Lankford wrote two weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal, this amendment should also be coupled with the use of Global Magnitsky sanctions on individual Turkish officials determined to have engaged in grand corruption or in serious human rights violations. The Global Magnitsky Act is a relatively new piece of legislation passed in 2016 and used for the first time in December 2017. It gives the president the authority to sanction individuals and entities responsible for serious human rights violations anywhere in the world, barring them from travel to the United States, freezing their assets, and effectively shutting them out of the U.S. financial system.
There is a lot of gnashing of teeth right now about sanctions against Turkey, and whether they will do more harm than good. Too much of this discussion presumes that it is the United States and its allies that are responsible for the deterioration, when it is actually Turkey that is pushing its alliances to the breaking point.
Congress and the Trump administration must demonstrate to Ankara that even as the U.S.-Turkey relationship becomes more transactional, there are certain areas that will never be subject to a bargain. The United States will not negotiate over the rights of American citizens, or over the rule of law in the United States, even in high-profile cases like the sanctions-buster Reza Zarrab or the extradition of Fethullah Gulen. And it will continue to place anti-corruption and rule-of-law issues squarely in the center of its bilateral relations with Turkey. It is, after all, still an ally — for now.