By Humeyra Pamuk and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON – The influential chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee criticized Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday for failing to condemn Turkey’s decision to convict philanthropist Osman Kavala to life imprisonment, a verdict seen as symbolic of President Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on dissent.
Kavala was jailed for life without parole on Monday after he was convicted of trying to overthrow the government by financing protests, in a case that Europe’s top court and Western powers called politically motivated.
The State Department issued a statement on Monday saying it was “deeply troubled and disappointed” by the conviction and calling for Kavala’s release.
Senator Bob Menendez, the committee’s Democratic chairman, said the statement fell short.
“This is why authoritarian figures like Erdogan – they get away with continuing to do what they’re doing. We should have condemned the conviction,” Menendez said, using his last remarks at a hearing on the State Department budget to blast the statement.
As chairman, Menendez has the right to review arms deals, and Turkey currently is lobbying Congress not to block Ankara’s request to buy new F-16 fighter aircraft from the United States.
Turkey last October asked to buy 40 Lockheed Martin Corp-made F-16 fighter jets and nearly 80 modernization kits for its existing warplanes.
The sale of U.S. weapons to NATO ally Turkey became contentious after Ankara acquired Russian-made defense missile systems, also known as the S-400s, triggering U.S. sanctions as well as Turkey’s removal from the F-35 fighter jet program.
Menendez has long opposed the sale of F-16s to Turkey, as long as Ankara kept the S-400s.
Washington has so far refrained from expressing an opinion on the sale, saying it needs to go through the standard arms sale review process.
A State Department letter last month responding to a group of bipartisan lawmakers who specifically asked the Biden administration not to go ahead with the F-16 sale included language that defended “appropriate” defense ties with Turkey.
“The Administration believes that there are nonetheless compelling long-term NATO alliance unity and capability interests, as well as U.S. national security, economic and commercial interests that are supported by appropriate U.S. defense trade ties with Turkey,” the letter said.
But it neither gave any assurances nor provided a timeline for when the sale may or may not go ahead.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Patricia Zengerle in in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis)