Norway’s King Harald and Queen Sonja arrived in the Turkish capital Ankara this week to begin a controversial three-day state visit. The royals are heading a business and political delegation of almost 120 Norwegians including Foreign Minister Børge Brende, Trade Minister Monica Mæland, and Fisheries Minister Elisabeth Aspaker.
The royal visit was arranged after an invitation from Turkish President Abdullah Gül. It’s the first Norwegian state visit to Turkey since diplomatic relations began between the countries 87 years ago.
The visit has been widely criticized by human rights and free speech activists, though, both in Norway and Turkey. The groups claim the trip gives legitimacy to recent repressive actions of the Turkish government, led by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish authorities are accused of curtailing freedom of expression and assembly, imprisoning journalists and other regime critics, and brutally suppressing protests last summer.
Among those opposing the visit is William Nygaard, the high-profile leader of freedom of expression group Norsk PEN. The former publishing executive has himself survived an assassination attempt over his free press advocacy. Nygaard has accused the Norwegian authorities of putting business interests above human rights issues.
“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,” he told newspaper Morgenbladet in September, after he’d written to the King and Queen urging them to postpone the trip indefinitely.
New Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende has countered that the trip is very important. He told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Monday that Turkey is not only developing economically and socially, but also in the field of human rights. Brende says that will be an important topic during the visit.
“That includes (the need for) freedom of expression and journalists’ possibilities to write about what they want without being imprisoned, the responsibility to not imprison people without trial, and not least what we witnessed in the summer, where there was violence against the demonstrators,” he says. Norwegians also have continued to travel to Turkey in record numbers, as the country has become a popular tourist destination.
The Norwegian journalists’ union (Norsk Journalistlag, NJ), meanwhile, has asked both the king and the ministers to raise the issues of the imprisoned reporters during the visit.
The royals’ schedule includes meetings with President Gül and Prime Minister Erdogan, the opening of a Munch/Warhol art exhibition, and functions with authors and human rights activists. On Monday, shortly after their arrival, King Harald laid a wreath at Atatürk’s mausoleum, to honor the man considered the “father’ of modern Turkey.