Turkey Is Not Exactly a Model Citizen, Either

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- One irony of the crisis over missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi is the opportunity it has provided Turkey to polish its image.

It’s not just that a Turkish court on Friday finally released the American pastor Andrew Brunson, who had been detained for nearly two years. The Turkish authorities have blown the whistle on the Saudis, leaking surveillance footage and dossiers of the Saudi team alleged to have murdered Khashoggi in the face of stonewalling from Riyadh. They also claim to have audio and video evidence showing that Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate this month.

Now prominent Turkish leaders are sounding like spokesmen for Human Rights Watch. “The fate of Khashoggi is a test for the whole world with respect to freedom of expression,” former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu tweeted.

In one sense Davutoglu is right. If the charges are correct, then the U.S. must punish the Saudis in order to deter other allies from such brazen criminality. The problem is that the Turkish government is a great danger to the freedom of expression Davutoglu claims to respect.

For the last two years, the Committee to Protect Journalists has ranked Turkey as the world’s leading jailer of journalists. In October 2016, following a failed military coup that summer, Turkish authorities shut down 15 media organizations. The Turkish state has abused the Interpol system to issue a red notice for journalists who write critically about the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Then there is the Turkish campaign to kidnap its own citizens in other countries, much as the Saudis are accused of trying to do with Khashoggi. These abductions are a part of the Erdogan government’s effort to crack down on what it says are plotters in a failed coup led by Fethullah Gulen, an exiled cleric living in the U.S.

Again, in the abstract this kind of thing is understandable: Governments have ordered these “snatch-and-grab” operations in other countries when it comes to terrorists and other dangerous outlaws. But the sheer scale of Turkish arrests at home and abroad is indefensible. In April, a deputy prime minister boasted that Turkish intelligence has “bundled up and brought back” 80 Turkish citizens living abroad suspected of Gulenist ties. One such plotter was a school teacher who had been living in Mongolia for 24 years.

Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote that Turkey’s abductions have created their own crises. Swiss authorities, taking a page from the Turkish playbook, have issued arrest warrants for two Turkish diplomats who tried to abduct a Turkish-Swiss businessman. “The Erdogan government’s brutish methods have destroyed freedom of press in their own country,” Erdemir wrote. “And Turkey’s citizens are not safe, both at home and abroad.”

Calling attention to Turkey’s bad behavior does not excuse Saudi Arabia’s. If the Saudis sent 15 agents into Turkey to murder Khashoggi, or even initially just to abduct him, then the regime should pay a heavy price. Punishing Saudi Arabia, however, should not mean rewarding Turkey.

It’s welcome news that Brunson has been released. Yet Serkan Golge, a Turkish-American NASA scientist, remains in Turkish custody on charges related to the failed coup. There are also two Turkish nationals who worked at U.S. diplomatic missions who have been detained since 2017. The Turks “need to make a choice,” a senior U.S. official told me this week. “Do they want to be a pariah state like Iran or a member of the international community?”

Freeing Brunson is a step in the right direction. And if it turns out Saudi operatives murdered Khashoggi, Turkey will have played a valuable role in bringing this crime to light. But none of that negates Erdogan’s transgressions of basic international norms. Exposing a rival’s plot to kidnap one of its citizens doesn’t excuse your own penchant for such abductions.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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