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Turkey’s move to expel ambassadors over activist’s jailing risks widening rift with west

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A decision by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to declare 10 ambassadors – including those from seven Nato allies – as persona non grata threatens to open the biggest rift with the west during his two decades in power.

Representatives from the US, Canada, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and New Zealand issued a joint statement earlier this week demanding the urgent release of Osman Kavala, a prominent businessman and philanthropist who has been held in pre-trial detention for more than four years on charges related to the 2013 Gezi park protests and the 2016 coup attempt.

They were summoned by the foreign ministry and on Saturday the president said he had ordered a declaration of persona non grata for the envoys, which can remove diplomatic status and lead to expulsion.

Carrying out the expulsions would send Turkey’s relationships with Europe and the US to an all-time low, risk further turmoil for the Turkish lira, and accelerate Ankara’s drift away from the west. Seven of the countries involved are Turkey’s Nato allies.

The ambassadors “cannot dare to come to the Turkish foreign ministry and give orders … I gave the necessary order to our foreign minister and said what must be done: these 10 ambassadors must be declared persona non grata at once,” Erdoğan said in a speech in the north-western city of Eskişehir.

“They will know and understand Turkey. The day they do not know and understand Turkey, they will leave,” he said to cheers from the crowd.

“No instructions have been given to embassies,” a Turkish diplomatic source told Reuters, adding that it was possible a decision may be taken at a cabinet meeting on Monday.

Most of the countries involved have declined to comment until hearing from official Turkish channels, with the US state department saying Washington was aware of the reports and was seeking clarity from the Turkish foreign ministry.

“Our ambassador has not done anything that warrants an expulsion,” Norway’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Trude Maaseide, told Reuters.

The high-profile Kavala case is seen as emblematic of a crackdown on dissent under Erdoğan, and has been closely watched by western diplomats and human rights groups for years.

Kavala and eight other Gezi park activists facing up to 20 years in prison on terror charges were acquitted last year in a surprise ruling, but he was returned to Istanbul’s Silivri prison within hours after a new warrant for his re-arrest as part of an investigation into the failed 2016 coup.

The European court of human rights in 2019 called for his immediate release, saying the democracy campaigner’s extended time in custody was not supported by evidence of an offence and served the ulterior purpose of “reducing him to silence with a chilling effect on civil society”.

The Council of Europe has said it will begin infringement proceedings against Turkey by the end of next month if Kavala is not released. His next hearing is on 26 November, although the 64-year-old said on Friday he would no longer attend as he believed a fair hearing was impossible.

Erdoğan’s dramatic response to the ambassadors’ statement suggests he interpreted it as a personal attack, and reflects his belief that the Gezi park protest movement aimed to violently overthrow his government.

Demonstrations that began over plans to turn the rare green space in central Istanbul into a shopping mall grew into nationwide protests against the then prime minister’s increasingly strong grip on Turkey. The ensuing police crackdown and mass arrests set the scene for the increasingly authoritarian direction in which the government has since travelled.

The president was quoted on Thursday as saying the ambassadors in question would not release “bandits, murderers and terrorists” in their own countries.

The threat to remove the envoys is possibly calibrated for Erdoğan’s base; the show of strength is likely to play well as his Justice and Development party continues to lose popular support over soaring inflation.

De-escalation is also possible given that the diplomatic fallout would come at a particularly awkward time: Erdoğan is expected to meet Joe Biden and other world leaders at both a G20 summit in Rome next week and the UN climate change conference in Glasgow.

The UK, Italy and Spain are among the most prominent countries that did not sign the statement calling for Kavala’s release. It is likely their absence from the statement, which was largely coordinated by the US, would have gone unnoticed but for the persona non grata decision.

The UK has long prided itself on its close relations with Turkey, and was the first country to send a minister to Ankara after the 2016 abortive coup.

There was no immediate statement from the UK condemning the possible expulsions.

The Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, has already found himself in hot water with Ankara after describing Erdoğan as a dictator, prompting the Turkish president to call him rude.

Spanish banks have more exposure to the plunging Turkish lira than any other European country.

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