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ISTANBUL – Turkish opposition members and human rights defenders are urging President Donald Trump to raise the issue of Turkey's deteriorating human rights and democracy in talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday.
Erdogan is scheduled to meet with Trump at the White House for discussions expected to center on the friction between the two NATO allies over a U.S. decision to arm Syrian Kurdish fighters considered as terrorists by Turkey. They will also likely focus on a Turkish request for the extradition of a U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen whom Turkey blames for last summer's failed coup.
The Trump administration has placed priority on U.S. security issues and advancing foreign policy goals, and there is no indication that the issues of human rights and media freedoms will figure prominently on the agenda.
The meeting comes weeks after Erdogan's narrow victory in a national referendum that will expand the powers of his office — a development critics say takes Turkey closer toward autocratic rule.
"Turkey is under a state of emergency since (the failed coup), during which human rights have been trampled on," said Sezgin Tanrikulu, a legislator from Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP. "The media and press freedoms have been placed under government control. Torture and ill-treatment have increased."
"Human rights and democracy are not part of Trump's agenda, but we hope that he abandons this stance," Tanrikulu said. "A Turkey that moves away from the world is to no one's interest."
About 47,000 people have been arrested for alleged links to the coup, while 100,000 people suspected of association to Gulen's movement have been fired from government jobs. Turkey also moved to cracked down on other opponents, jailing more than 100 journalists and about a dozen legislators from an opposition pro-Kurdish party.
Trump has been keen to maintain a good relationship with Erdogan. He congratulated Erdogan on his referendum win even as human rights advocates and some European leaders voiced concerns over the direction Turkey is taking.
Erdogan's ties with the former U.S. administration were strained, among other issues, over Washington's frequent calls for Turkey to respect human rights and freedom of expression. The fact that the Trump administration hasn't publicly outlined these issues as part of the agenda might come as a relief to Erdogan.
A senior Turkish government official said, however, that Trump not focusing on human rights in Turkey was "not an issue for us."
"I don't think it would even have crossed the president's mind. Our priority is the YPG issue," the official said.
He was making a reference to the Syrian Kurdish fighters whom the U.S. has decided to provide with weapons ahead of a possible operation to recapture the Islamic State group's Syrian stronghold of Raqqa. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to reporters.
Turkey considers the YPG an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, and has designated both groups as terrorists. Turkey fears that weapons supplied to the YPG will end up in the hands of the PKK — which has led a three-decade long insurgency in Turkey, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths.
Ozturk Turkdogan, the head of Turkey's Ankara-based Human Rights Association, said that he hoped Trump would raise human rights issues and push Erdogan to revive efforts for a peaceful solution to the conflict with the PKK rebels.
"A new initiative with the Kurds would bring peace to Turkey and resolve the Kurdish issue that is plaguing the Middle East," he said.