Turkey struggles to take moral high ground in face of its own human rights record

The kidnapping and likely extrajudicial execution of Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad in the country’s Istanbul consulate has caused an delicate situation for the Turkish government. However, this is nothing compared to the cracks it reveals in Saudi’s relationship to its Western allies.  

The scandal gives Turkey diplomatic leverage over the Saudis, with whom they have already fallen out over Saudi Arabia’s blockade of Qatar.

Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman said in March that Turkey was part of a “triangle of evil”. Isolating Saudi from its Western allies is good diplomacy for Turkey. At the same time, it exposes Turkey to accusations of hypocrisy in its treatment of domestic dissent and makes it difficult for Erdogan to take the moral high ground.

This did not stop Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu from tweeting that “Punishing a citizen just because of his/her critical views is incompatible with any human values.” Turkish authorities consider their own repression of domestic dissent to be justified, usually claiming that journalists have only been prosecuted for supporting terrorism .

Turkey has also been kidnapping people it considers to be connected to the Gülen movement abroad. Turkish officials have not been particularly subtle about these kidnappings, with Deputy Prime Minister Bozdağ openly telling HaberTürk in April that they had ‘bundled up and brought back’ around 80 citizens in other countries.

Responding to Davutoğlu’s tweet, some listed the names of journalists who have been imprisoned in Turkey. At the beginning of October, journalists Ahmet and Mehmet Altan had their life sentences confirmed by a court in Ankara.

Their convictions were based on the accusation that they had sent ‘coded messages’ to Gülenists on a television programme the day before the coup attempt. All the journalists sentenced by the court were given aggravated life sentences, making them ineligible for parole and forced to spend up to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement.

What is clear from the Turkish reaction to Khashoggi’s alleged murder is that Erdoğan’s government is being much more careful in its approach to the Saudis than in its rhetoric towards the West. Turkey’s economic situation is grave, with inflation reaching almost 25 per cent in September, according to the Turkish statistics authority. But the refusal of the Turkish government to use monetary policy to fight inflation, instead demanding that private businesses cut prices, has caused further concern for investors.

With falling direct capital investment from the West, Turkey has looked to Middle-Eastern states to steady the ship. Its primary relationship in the Gulf is with Qatar, which is why Turkey backed the Qataris in the standoff with Saudi Arabia. The Kasoggi case is an opportunity for Turkey to aid Qatar without coming into direct conflict with Saudi. Media organisations like Qatar-based AlJazeera and Middle East Eye (which allegedly receives Qatari funding), have been heavily covering the incident.

For Turkey’s domestic audience, meanwhile, coverage of the Kashoggi case overshadows its embarrassment at the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson, who had been in prison in Turkey for two years on charges of supporting the Kurdish PKK. The flimsy case against him and obvious political release do not make Turkey look good domestically or internationally.

It has been uncomfortable for Western human rights activists such as myself to watch for many years as the United States and Britain have failed to live up to their supposed human rights values when it comes to the Saudi’s authoritarian rulers. I worked on human rights in Bahrain during the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and watched as the Saudi military rolled in to crush Bahrainis demanding political reform. Britain and the United States ‘expressed concern’.

My friend and former boss, Nabeel Rajab, has been repeatedly jailed and will probably serve 10 years or more for the crime of criticising the Saudi involvement in the Yemen conflict. Not in Saudi, but in Bahrain, which has effectively become a dependency of the Saudis.

As much as the Khashoggi case is problematic for Turkey, it is worse for the United Kingdom. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said that that "If these allegations are true, there will be serious consequences because our friendships and our partnerships are based on shared values."

As the Guardian has noted, for the UK to turn a blind eye to the alleged murder of a journalist in another country just after Russia’s attempted assassination of its former spy in the UK would look like “high hypocrisy”.

I went to the Natural History Museum on Thursday night to join protesters demonstrating against the museum’s decision to lay out the red carpet for the Saudi embassy and their guests to celebrate Saudi national day. Despite calls to cancel the event, the museum went ahead with it, claiming that they needed the money.

In the past, the Saudis have threatened to withdraw security cooperation when the UK Serious Fraud Office was investigating corruption in UK arms sales to the Saudis. This is blackmail, and not the kind of treatment that should be acceptable from an ally with which the UK has ‘shared interests’.

As for the United States, Trump has already said he doesn’t want to halt the lucrative arms trade with the Saudis. Britain and the US seem to be consumed by existential political crises while internationally their hands are tied by the purchase of oil and the arms that flow the other way

Many of us have been trying to highlight this corrupt relationship for years, and I hope that if there is any good to come from this horrific episode, it is that it starts a serious movement to reduce Western support for the Saudi regime, and to break the West’s addiction to the fossil fuels that undermine our values, as well as destroy our planet.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.