The leader of Norway’s foremost promoter of free speech, Norsk PEN, has asked King Harald and Queen Sonja to postpone a long-planned state visit to Turkey in November. William Nygaard, a former publishing executive who was once nearly killed over his own advocacy of a free press, believes the upcoming state visit will damage the work of those fighting violations of freedom of expression and human rights in Turkey.
“This visit is very unfortunate,” Nygaard told newspaper Morgenbladet on Friday. “It will be used for political gain by the Turkish authorities and will be a setback for all those who are working for human rights in the country.”
Nygaard has been in Turkey several times this year and is alarmed by how the Turkish government, led by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, has limited freedom of expression, jailed journalists and critics of his regime, and restricted other rights such as freedom of assembly. Turkish police, for example, reacted harshly against demonstrators in June, and last month, several persons were sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of planning a coup against Erdogan and the ruling Islamist party AKP in 2007. Journalists, politicians and academics along with a group of military officers were among those indicted in the case.
Nygaard followed the case in Istanbul and wrote in newspaper Aftenposten that the convictions were “tragic” for Turkey and its legal system. He was sorry that members of the international diplomat corps in Turkey weren’t among observers in the courtroom, and that Norwegian diplomats were absent as well.
“I asked defense attorneys (in the case) how a state visit with royal participation would be perceived at this point, and the answer was unanimous, that it would be a setback for their work,” Nygaard told Morgenbladet. “I wish the royal couple and (Norway’s) foreign ministry would take the consequences of the serious situation in Turkey. Norske PEN strongly recommends that the royal couple withdraw from the visit or that it be indefinitely postponed.”
Norway nonetheless has close contact with Turkey, which is a member of NATO and involved in efforts to aid Syrian refugees. Hundreds of thousands of Norwegian tourists spend holidays in Turkey and Norway is home to many immigrants from Turkey. The royals are to be accompanied to Turkey by, as usual, a Norwegian business delegation along with government officials including whoever takes over as foreign minister in a new Conservatives-led government coalition now under formation following the September 9 election. Nygaard claims the Norwegian authorities are putting business interests above human rights issues by allowing the visit to go through, and it’s not the first time such claims have been made.
Nygaard delivered a letter to the Royal Palace this week protesting the visit, but as usual, a Royal Palace spokeswoman referred any comment to the foreign ministry. The royals are often used as door-openers and figureheads in such state visits, with the ministry making the arrangements and setting priorities.
Outgoing State Secretary Torgeir Larsen of the Labour Party, which lost government power in the election earlier this month, said the state visit was arranged after an invitation from Turkish President Abdullah Gül. He claimed a state visit “offers a platform for broad contact and creates a framework for political talks on what we’re worried about, like the lack of freedom of expression.” He also said that Norway’s embassy in Ankara had tried to secure observer spots in the courtroom during the so-called Ergenekon case, didn’t succeed and has made its regrets known to Turkish authorities.
Larsen said that striking a balance between cordial relations and critical dialogue “is something we face in many countries. But in order to take up the difficult questions, we must have a platform for the talks.”
Asked whether the royal couple’s state visit to Turkey from November 5-7 might be postponed, Larsen replied that a postponement was “ingen aktuell problemstilling,” in other words, not on the agenda and highly unlikely.
He’ll be out of office by the time the visit takes place, with a new foreign minister, probably from the Conservatives, traveling with the royals. The Conservatives stress human rights in their party program but the party’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide (a top candidate to be foreign minister herself) told Morgenbladet that she didn’t want to comment until a change of government takes place, probably in mid-October.