Middle East, Top Stories

Turkey’s Gulenists pick up 15-member lobbying team for human rights push

Turkey’s Gulenist movement has picked up a bipartisan lobbying firm to take full advantage of Washington’s exasperation with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s government.

The National Council on Civil Advocacy, which is close to exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, has hired Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas effective April 1 to lobby on “democracy, human rights and rule law for Turkey” as well as proposals to address human and civil rights violations, especially against Gulenists. Turkish authorities blame Gulen for a failed 2016 coup and have jailed tens of thousands of his alleged followers while seeking his extradition from his complex in Pennsylvania.

As is its practice, Mehlman Castagnetti has registered its entire team of 15 people as lobbyists on the account, starting with co-founders Bruce Mehlman and David Castagnetti. Mehlman served as an Assistant Secretary of Commerce under President George W. Bush, while Castagnetti was chief of staff to former Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

Bilal Eksili, the council’s executive director, told Foreign Lobby Report that the contract was for less than $20,000 per month but declined to be more specific. He said the lobbying boost should help put more international pressure on Erdogan at a time when the Joe Biden administration has shown little interest in placating Turkey, including recognizing the Ottoman-era of Armenians as a genocide last month.

“The atmosphere is very positive” for his group, Eksili said. “Right now in Washington everybody is talking about human rights abuses in Turkey.”

He said Mehlman Castagnetti would offer advice and counsel and help open doors on Capitol Hill and with the Biden administration while lobbying on a few specific bills.

These include the Turkey Human Rights Promotion Act from Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Oregon Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, which urges human rights sanctions against officials found responsible for the “detention of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, politically motivated detention of journalists, restricting freedom of expression through social media, and other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” The bill would also direct the State Department to fund civil society organizations that work to secure the release of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners in Turkey.

Another priority bill is an effort by Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), co-leaders of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission), that seeks to make it harder for autocratic states to use Interpol red notices to go after dissidents. The lawmakers specifically mentioned Turkey’s red notice against NBA basketball player and avowed Gulenist Enes Kanter in a press release last week touting the re-introduction of their Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act.

Finally, Eksili said the firm would encourage Biden to press the issue of human rights during his first expected face-to-face meeting with Erdogan since becoming president at the NATO summit in Brussels next month. The meeting is expected to be tense, with Ankara bristling over its expulsion from the F-35 fighter jet program and continued US support for Syrian Kurdish fighters that Turkey considers to be terrorists.


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Eksili himself has been a registered lobbyist for the council since 2019 and disclosed spending $160,000 on lobbying since then, most of it in the first half of 2020. The council previously retained Sextons Creek Consulting, a firm founded by Bill Smith, a former chief of staff to Mike Pence when he was a governor and member of Congress, along with Fidelis Government Relations to lobby the Trump administration.

The Alliance for Shared Values, another Gulenist group, for its part has retained the services of the Cogent Group since February 2018 for $30,000 per quarter. Managing Director David Adams, an Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Andrew Kauders, formerly a senior adviser to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), lobbied on “issues related to human rights, freedom of expression and rule of law” in the first quarter of 2021.

Meanwhile Ankara’s once-massive lobbying operation meanwhile has largely collapsed in recent months, in part because of pressure from the Armenian diaspora over Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan in last year’s conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Only three firms now remain registered as foreign agents for the Turkish Embassy in Washington: its longtime Washington law firm Saltzman & Evinch; Amsterdam & Partners, which has led the fight to shut down Gulen-linked charter schools in the US; and longtime Turkey lobbyist Lydia Borland and her firm, LB International Solutions.