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Why I attended the session in the US House of Representatives

HDN | 12/14/2009 12:00:00 AM | SEDAT ERGİN

Just as the attempt to close the AKP was decried as an affront to democracy, so too are recent human rights abuses and the Doğan tax case.

Just 10 days ago, I testified as a witness in a special session on Turkey before a congressional commission, specifically Tom Lantos’ House of Representatives Human Rights Commission. (Read the full transcript here.)

I have become a target of sorts in the course of the last week in a number of critical missives for having attended and spoken at this session. There were even those who painted me as a collaborator in a conspiracy to punish the administration of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a pawn in a scheme concocted by the Jewish lobby.

I even faced certain hints that connected this matter with Ergenekon, by way of innuendo. To top it all off, Erdoğan himself spoke of a misinformation campaign – through allusions to this session – aimed at his administration, during statements he made on his own recent visit to Washington. I believe I am entitled to say a few words in the face of such criticism.

I did not think twice about accepting the request made by the House of Representatives to attend. I have faced no hindrances or obstacles from the group I work for in this matter.

A certain image that I attended this session alone, acting as a lobbyist, was created in certain articles. However, there were four others with me seated around the table at the time. And who was there, you ask?

One was Professor İhsan Dağı, a columnist from daily Zaman, a newspaper that fully supports the administration. Another was Hasan Bülent Kahraman, a columnist from daily Sabah, owned by a group where the Prime Minister’s son-in-law works as the chief executive officer.

This is because representatives from two newspapers that openly support the administration attended the session as witnesses, just like me. When all was said and done, a lot was said in favor of the administration as well.

Representatives from Amnesty International and Journalists Without Borders also spoke during the first part of the session. Both organizations made rather critical presentations regarding issues in areas of human rights violations and freedom of expression in Turkey.

[HH] Some journalists afraid of retaliation unable to attend

The session was chaired by Donna Edwards, a Democrat representative from Maryland. Edwards started her speech praising the reform efforts of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government.

Later, however, she continued and said the process had come to a halt lately, and that an increase had been observed in human rights violations, as well as in prosecutions under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, leading to auto-censorship in the media.

Edwards also spoke of the $3.3 billion tax penalty levied against the Doğan Media Group in a critical tone, and read excerpts from a Washington Post editorial criticizing the Turkish government on this measure.

However, the most striking aspect of the speech was her words: “Some Turkish journalists who were to testify today declined out of concern, they said that the government would seek retribution.”

Five witnesses were invited from Turkey. KADER executive Selma Acuner and Milliyet columnist Rıza Türmen, who was invited as a former European Human Rights Court judge, were also there in addition to Dağı and Kahraman.

Almost every recent development ranging from the killing of Engin Çeber by torture to the 32-year-long sentence for journalist Nedim Şener and the increase in torture cases came up during the session. It lasted upwards of two hours.

[HH] What I said in my speech

My remarks lasted approximately 10 minutes. I spoke of positive and negative trends that coexist in Turkey in a paradoxical manner. I commended political reforms that were achieved in the course of the European Union accession process and the recent Kurdish initiative as part of the positive trends.

I spoke of the negative aspects as well. Both sides of the issue weighed equally in my statement. The tax penalty was merely a couple of paragraphs. I provided a detailed answer upon a specific question regarding the tax penalty assessed on the Doğan Group by a congressman during the Q&A portion of the session.

All discussions took place before all attendees. The commission shall publish the minutes of this session on its Web site in the coming days. I am publishing my original speech in English as well as its Turkish translation on the Hürriyet Web site for the purpose of shedding more light on this argument.

I attended the meeting. This is because human rights and freedom of expression issues can no longer be regarded as internal affairs in developed democracies. An approach that says, “Our human rights issues may not be mentioned abroad,” is a thing of last century. It is an approach befitting third-world countries.

This commitment to the universal and international importance of human rights was, not so very long ago, the basis on which criticisms were leveled by many figures in the United States when the issue was efforts to close to the ruling AKP, headed by Erdoğan, a violation of the basic tenets of democracy.

It seems reasonable to me that the same respect should be given to this commitment, and international reaction should be expected, when other problems and threats to democracy are detected and scrutinized by the international community.

The very same spirit in which U.S. personalities delivered statements when they considered the party closure suit for the AKP a violation of democracy should be regarded as a natural reaction when they detect and scrutinize other problems in Turkey.

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