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Rex Tillerson Fails to Acknowledge Concerns over Turkey’s Slide Toward Dictatorship in Ankara Visit

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As U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits Turkey this week, we look at how he has failed to raise concerns that the country may be sliding toward a dictatorship. Tillerson made no public mention of mass arrests of protesters, a purge of opponents that followed last year’s failed coup attempt, or a crackdown on the news media. This comes as Turkey continues to express frustration over U.S. support for Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq, at the same time it says Kurdish militants are waging an insurgency inside Turkey. Turkey is set to hold a referendum next month on a constitutional overhaul that would give sweeping powers to President Erdogan and extend his presidency to 2029. We speak with Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network.

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AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Brussels for a major meeting on NATO, where he argued the United States is spending a disproportionate share on defense compared with its 27 partners. The meeting follows Tillerson’s visit to Turkey yesterday, where he tried to bolster relations with Turkey despite concerns it’s sliding towards a dictatorship. So far during his trip, Tillerson has made no mention of mass arrests of protesters, a purge of opponents that followed last year’s failed coup attempt, and a crackdown on the news media. Tillerson’s visit comes as Turkey continues to express frustration over U.S. support for Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq, at the same time it says Kurdish militants are waging an insurgency inside Turkey. This is Tillerson speaking yesterday in Ankara.

SECRETARY OF STATE REX TILLERSON: The United States and Turkey share many broad goals for the region: reducing Iran’s ability to disrupt the region, finding a settlement in Syria that allows Syrians to return home, and supporting Iraqis to build a strong, independent and inclusive government in Baghdad. In the United States, the people of Turkey have a trusted ally and a partner who is committed to its safety and security and advancing economic opportunity. We look forward to approaching these challenges together, and the Trump administration will continue to build ties with this long-standing ally and our friend.

AMY GOODMAN: Tillerson’s trip to Turkey comes as an executive of Turkey’s state-run bank was accused in the United States of conspiring with a Turkish gold trader to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran. The banker may have ties to the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, who lives in exile in the Poconos in Pennsylvania, is blamed by the Turkish president, Erdogan, for the failed coup. Erdogan has pushed to have Gülen extradited. Back in Turkey, U.S. officials say Tillerson met with the wife of an American pastor who’s been jailed since September on terrorism charges related to his alleged links to Gülen.

Meanwhile, on April [16th], Turkey is set to hold a referendum on a constitutional overhaul that would give sweeping powers to President Erdogan and extend his presidency to 2029. The measure would enable the president to issue decrees, declare emergency rule, appoint ministers and top state officials, and dissolve parliament. Erdogan became president in 2014 after over—serving a decade as prime minister.

Turkey is also in a dispute with Germany and the Netherlands over their refusal to allow campaign appearances by Turkish officials seeking to raise support for the referendum among Turks who live there. Nearly one-and-a-half million Turks who live in Germany can vote on the measure. Erdogan has called the Dutch, quote, “modern-day Nazis” and accused Germany’s chancellor of Islamophobia and harboring terrorists. On Saturday, several thousand people, including Kurdish protesters, joined a rally in Switzerland’s capital, Bern, calling for a “no” vote on the referendum. Protests were also held over the weekend in Germany. On Sunday, Erdogan lashed out at the protesters.

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: [translated] You call the Turkish republic’s president a dictator, but these gentlemen are annoyed when we call them fascists. They are annoyed when we call them Nazis. I’m talking based on documents. Aren’t you the ones drawing swastikas on the walls of our mosques?

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network.

Kani, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about Tillerson’s visit in the midst of these mass protests around the world on the referendum Erdogan is pushing, that would give him enormously expanded power and an enormously extended reign as president of Turkey?

KANI XULAM: Well, Tillerson went to Turkey to make sure the Incirlik Air Base could be used against the Islamic State. But Turkey has a different agenda. Turkey wants the cleric in Pennsylvania to be extradited, and Turkey wants U.S. not to join forces with YPG fighters inside Syria against the Islamic State. And Tillerson says, you know, “We want to fight against Daesh, ISIS. We want economic progress in Turkey. We want stability.” The problem in Turkey is, as Aristotle once put, for a country to endure, it doesn’t just need commerce and security, it also needs civic for eternity. And Turkey doesn’t have that. You have Turkey at war with a quarter of its population, called Kurds. And since the coup attempt, Turkey has dismissed over 130,000 people from their jobs and filled the prisons with them. Over 6,300 academics have been dismissed from their jobs. Fifteen universities have been closed. Turkey now has more than half of the world’s journalists in jail. And Tillerson didn’t even bring these things up.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, interestingly, Tillerson has, to say the least, greatly reduced power as a U.S. secretary of state, hasn’t staffed out the State Department, has applauded President Trump’s proposal to slash the State Department. But still his messages are important, from today in NATO to yesterday in Turkey. You mentioned YPG. For people who aren’t familiar with Turkish-Kurdish politics, explain what you’re talking about in Syria with the U.S. working with Kurdish forces to defeat ISIS, something Erdogan is not very happy about.

KANI XULAM: YPG is a Kurdish militia that is part of or the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, that the U.S. has found to be the most effective boots on the ground against the Islamic cutthroats. Turkey has allowed its border to be used as a way station for over 35,000 foreign fighters to cross it to go into Syria with the hopes of toppling Assad, with the hopes of turning Syria into a Turkish satellite state. The plans didn’t work out. Then there was this monstrosity called the Islamic State, and the U.S. found out that Turkey was not really serious about them. Turkey was supporting Syrian Freedom—Free Syrian Army, whose forces are happy to shout “Allahu Akbar,” and then ISIS fighters shout “Allahu Akbar.” So you cannot have two fighters—two groups fighting each other, claiming God is great. The U.S. basically found out that you cannot really accomplish this goal. The YPG is fighting and is—because Daesh, Islamic State, has been kidnapping Kurdish women, has been selling them as sex slaves. So, for the Kurds, it’s an existential war. And the U.S., to its credit, has, during Obama, supported them—during Trump, the support level has gone up, actually—and wants the Islamic State to be degraded and destroyed, and thinks that YPG is the force to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: And very quickly, this referendum, what it would mean for Erdogan and increasing his power?

KANI XULAM: For example, there are 28 important judges for life in Turkey. Erdogan would be appointing 18 of them, and the remaining, rump Turkish parliament would appoint 10 of them. For example, Erdogan, if he doesn’t like the parliament, he could just run the country by decrees. For example, Erdogan would have the power over the budget process. Erdogan would basically be a sultan, would be a absolute ruler. And if he doesn’t—if the opposition doesn’t like him, the parliament doesn’t like him, he could just dissolve it.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly—we have 30 seconds—can you talk about the case of Zehra Dogan, the Kurdish artist arrested last week for her painting depicting the Turkish military operations in the city of Mardin?

KANI XULAM: Well, the city was Nusaybin. Last year, the city was totally destroyed. The Turkish military took a photo of it, almost like an aerial photo, and distributed it on its Twitter feed. This woman, Zehra Dogan, downloaded it and then made a painting of it and then put it on her Instagram. And guess what. The judge just gave her two years—two years, 10 months and 22 days in jail for making PKK propaganda. I mean, this is a picture they took. She just simply painted it. And for that, now she’s in jail.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, but we’ll continue to follow all of this. Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network, thanks for joining us.

When we come back, we speak to two immigrant justice activists in Vermont who were just released after more than a week held by ICE in jail. Stay with us.

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