On December 21, Leyla Guven, a member of parliament from Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who won her seat in 2018 with nearly 75 percent of the vote, was sentenced to twenty-two years in prison.
The basis for the charge was a 2018 speech Guven had made opposing Turkey’s invasion of Afrin—which displaced hundreds of thousands, empowered extremists, and subjected civilians to brutal militia rule.
One day later, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkey must immediately release former HDP co-leader and presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas, who has been jailed since 2016 on equally politicized charges.
Senior government officials immediately attacked the ruling, reiterating their farcical view that Demirtas—a human rights lawyer by training and lifelong advocate for a peaceful resolution to Turkey’s Kurdish question—is a terrorist. An application for his release was quickly denied, and new charges against him were filed for his criticism of Turkish inaction against ISIS at Kobane, a sentiment shared by the US-led anti-ISIS coalition at the time.
By launching new attacks on two popular elected officials who have faced more than their fair share of political repression for advocating for peace, democracy, and Kurdish rights, Erdogan is testing the incoming Biden administration’s commitment to democratic values and international norms. So far, it is failing that test.
While willing to discuss cases of political prisoners around the world during the campaign and seemingly critical of Erdogan’s anti-Kurdish authoritarianism, Biden himself has not said a word about Demirtas or Guven.
His pick for National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, has expressed concern about the similarly unjust arrests of a Saudi feminist and a Ugandan human rights lawyer over the course of the past week, but notably excluded recent cases from Turkey—raising serious questions as to whether he might give Erdogan’s authoritarianism a free pass in office.
Biden’s team may fear that speaking up about democracy and minority rights in Turkey could risk pushing Erdogan closer to Russia or compromising NATO. However, asking an ally to abide by democratic norms against the imprisonment of elected officials—and, in Demirtas’ case, to comply with a legally binding court ruling—is the opposite of a risky decision.
Opponents of greater engagement in on democracy and human rights issues in Turkey have never spelled out how they believe Erdogan’s government will respond to these criticisms. The catastrophic scenarios they likely fear are irrational at best—and intentionally calibrated to stifle diplomatic engagement at worst.
In addition, by allowing a U.S.-aligned autocrat to attack the very foundations of democratic government, the Biden team is undermining its own stated pro-democracy agenda before their first day in office. No other country in the world jails as many legally elected members of its own parliament as Turkey does—but some may well start if American policymakers signal that the behavior is acceptable.
All available evidence suggests that encouraging more political space for Turkey’s pro-Kurdish opposition would reduce, not increase, the behaviors that some in Washington seek to keep in check by showing tacit approval of Erdogan’s crackdown.
The HDP is the only party in Turkey to have voted against disastrous and destabilizing interventions in Afrin, Ras al-Ain, and Tel Abyad. Rather than lash out about the implementation of Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions as Turkey’s Islamists and nationalists did, they reiterated their opposition to the S-400 deal and called for an “alternative way out” of the AKP government’s escalating foreign policy crises. It is difficult to understand why the United States would want elected leaders who espouse these views to be forced out of politics.
Furthermore, there have been instances where Turkey has responded to targeted human rights pressure from the United States by taking action on the case at hand—while there are no instances wherein Turkey has responded to this type of criticism by taking asymmetric steps towards Russian interests. When the United States pressured Erdogan to release Andrew Brunson, an American detained on similar bogus terror charges to those leveled against Demirtas and Guven, he blustered for domestic audiences but ultimately complied.
It is clear that Biden must change course. He could start by taking cues from Congress. Condemning Erdogan’s crackdown on opposition politics has become a consensus on Capitol Hill.
One resolution introduced in November 2019, whose cosponsors included some of the Senate’s most conservative and most liberal members alike, cited the detention of elected Kurdish mayors and MPs as “human rights violations” that had been “a defining aspect of President Erdogan’s authoritarian rule” and unequivocally called on Turkey to release all political prisoners. In the House of Representatives, the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission recognizes Selahattin Demirtas as a prisoner of conscience through its Defending Freedoms Project.
Biden could also look to his approach to his own election. In the tense days before the 2020 vote was called in his favor, Biden said repeatedly that every vote cast in a democratic country must count no matter the result. He dismissed comments suggesting foul play and outside interference, understanding that these were political tactics rather than legitimate grievances. Letting Erdogan then invalidate the votes of the millions of citizens of Turkey who supported Selahattin Demirtas, Leyla Guven, and HDP officials at every level of government is not simply bad policy—it’s dangerous hypocrisy.
Intentionally vague fears of politically convenient consequences do not outweigh the real dangers of complicity in an allied leader’s attacks on democracy. The sooner the Biden administration realizes this, the better prepared they will be to address the regional challenges posed by Turkey’s current government in a constructive way.
Meghan Bodette is an independent researcher whose work has covered North and East Syria, Turkey, and Kurdish affairs. She holds a degree in International Politics from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.