U.S. sanctions back on the table over Turkey's human rights abuses

Prominent United States Senators reintroduced a legislation which foresees sanctions against Turkish officials if the government of Turkey does not take effective steps to address its human rights violations in the country.

Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) announced the reintroduction of a human rights bill regarding Turkey, Markey’s official website wrote on Thursday.

The legislation, titled “Turkey Human Rights Promotion Act of 2021”, stated that actions taken by the Government of Turkey in the aftermath of the attempted coup of July 2016 “have significantly expanded the government’s crackdown on freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association”.

On July 15, 2016, a group of officers mainly from the Turkish Air Force attempted a coup to overthrow the Turkish government, which has maintained that the attempt that killed over 250 people was organised by  former ally Fethullah Gülen, a Sunni cleric who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s. Gülen’s handful of leading pupils were caught by Turkish law enforcement in the early hours of the next morning, in the vicinity of the Akıncı Military base in Ankara, since renamed to Mürted Air Base, where the coup had been executed.

Turkish authorities have arrested tens of thousands of people in the aftermath of the coup attempt. For two years afterwards, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had ruled over the country via state of emergency powers, with little -if any- oversight.  

According to the Act, the end of the state of emergency in 2018 has not led to an improvement in fundamental freedoms in Turkey as the government has codified several emergency provisions into law.

This legislation directs the U.S. Secretary of State to assist civil society organisations in Turkey that work to secure the release of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners.

The same bill also makes it “a Statement of Policy for the United States to support democracy, peace, and prosperity in Turkey and to oppose the Government of Turkey’s attack on freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association”.

The bill also expresses the sentiment in the  Senate that the Turkish Government must “take steps to significantly improve the dire climate for journalists and those supporting the journalism profession” as well as “cease its ongoing crackdown on free expression on the internet, including by repealing or amending laws that allow the government to block a website or remove content from the website” and “halt its indiscriminate detention and prosecution of lawyers, judges, and prosecutors, and fulfill its obligations under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) European Convention on Human Rights, and Turkey’s other international human rights obligations”.

If Turkey resists the calls to take “effective steps to address its human rights violations”, the bill urges the U.S. President to “impose sanctions pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act with respect to officials of the Government of Turkey found responsible for the detention of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, politically motivated detention of journalists, restricting freedom of expression through social media, and other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights”.

The same bill foresees two more sanctions;

- The Secretary of State should impose visa restrictions under the so-called “Khashoggi Ban” for those engaged in serious extraterritorial counter-dissident activities, as the Government of Turkey is reported to have done; and

- The Treasury Secretary should direct United States executive directors of key international financial institutions to oppose any loans, grants, policies, or strategies determined to be enabling the Government of Turkey to violate human rights of its citizens.

The Magnitsky Act is named after a Russian lawyer who was arrested and died in prison in Moscow in 2009, after accusing Russian officials of massive tax fraud. The United Kingdom has announced its first round of sanctions under its new global anti-corruption regime, as did the European Union in late 2020, adapting a similar act to the United States.