On December 3, 2009, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a two-hour meeting in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill to discuss the deteriorating human rights situation in Turkey. The session was just one of many and didn’t garner excessive notice in Washington, but then-Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdoğan was so furious that the Commission would both address Turkey’s deteriorating press freedom and call witnesses independent of those approved by the Turkish government that he abruptly curtailed the tenure of Turkey’s then-ambassador to the United States, Nabi Sensoy.

The problem was that as self-reverential as Erdoğan was (and is), he never understood Washington. Erdoğan did not realize that his dictatorial word might mean the difference between freedom and jail in Turkey, but meant little in the United States. He looked at the Congressional Turkey Caucus and saw a pledge to abide almost blindly by Turkey’s policies. Certainly, a handful of members did take Turkey apologia to extremes but most members are in it only for the Istanbul junkets; their actual commitment to Turkey ranks up there with concern about Guam flipping over.

The star witness of the 2009 Lantos Commission hearing was Sedat Ergin. Ergin, at the time a columnist for Hürriyet, is perhaps Turkey’s best-known journalist. Whereas other journalists and columnists have made careers out of ingratiating themselves to political figures, even at the expense of excusing the arrests of fellow journalists, Ergin has always been careful and steady. He has held senior posts—both reporting and management—at Turkey’s most respected broadsheets, and now serves as Hürriyet’s editor-in-chief. He refused to be cowed even as Erdoğan reduced press freedom in Turkey to levels below that even of Russia and was untouchable simply because he took no short-cuts and was unassailable in his work.

Alas, in the wake of Turkey’s November election and the further consolidation of Erdoğanism, such professionalism no longer matters. After reporting on a fight between Kurdish insurgents and Turkish forces in which 16 Turkish soldiers died two months before the election, Erdoğan was furious. Hürriyet had paraphrased the president’s remarks, tweeting that Erdoğan had said, “If Justice and Development Party (AKP) had had 400 deputies, these incidents wouldn’t have occurred,” when Erdoğan had said on television, “If a political party had had 400 deputies or had caught the number to change the constitution, the situation would have been different today.” The meaning is the same but the sin, it seems, was that the newspaper had tweeted something to fit within twitter’s 140 character limit. Erdoğan believes his word to be as immutable as Koranic verses. Paraphrasing – even if accurate – cannot be accepted because to do so is to insult the brilliance of Erdoğan himself.

The Erdoğan machine kicked into action. Within hours of the offending tweet, his Brownshirts attacked the Hürriyet offices. Everyone outside Turkey saw a cynical ploy to shift attention away from Erdoğan’s disastrous campaign against Turkey’s Kurds but Erdoğan’s followers live in a bubble and believe in conspiracy, all the more so when it becomes lucrative to do so. Now, a couple months later, it seems, Erdoğan will not let bygones be bygones. According to Hürriyet:

A lawsuit has been opened against Hürriyet Editor-in-Chief Sedat Ergin with a demand that the journalist serve five years in prison for “insulting president” due to a report in the daily. The indictment from prosecutor İdris Kurt said Hürriyet insulted President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan by paraphrasing his Sept. 6 remarks about an attack by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Dağlıca on the Iraqi border that killed 16 Turkish soldiers. The prosecutor demanded up to five years and four months in jail for Ergin. The journalist’s file has been merged with a lawsuit opened into daily Zaman’s former editor-in-chief, Ekrem Dumanlı, on the same charges over the newspaper’s reporting about the same speech by Erdoğan. The indictment said Hürriyet and Zaman published “unreal, offending, and ill-intentioned” reports over Erdoğan’s remarks about the Dağlıca incident. The indictment also said the reports should not be regarded within the right to freedom of speech.

Ergin could be dismissed as just one more victim of Turkey’s descent into the morass but should Congress ignore the man whose counsel they sought for a human rights hearing, they will lose far more credibility than perhaps the members of the Lantos Commission realize. At issue is not just press freedom in Turkey, but also freedom of inquiry and investigation in Washington.

Once upon a time, there was little downside to joining one of Congress’s myriad caucuses. To remain on the Turkey caucus, however, is to endorse an increasingly autocratic regime’s targeting of those on its list for speaking before Congress.

Back when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak arrested Egyptian-American sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the Bush administration held up more than $100 million in aid until Egypt released Ibrahim. Eventually, Mubarak caved in to pressure. It’s time to play hardball with Turkey and to stand up for Sedat Ergin. And if President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry will not, let us hope that this can be one issue that Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton (whom Turks have a special fondness for because of the Clinton visit in the aftermath of the earthquake) and the Republican candidates can agree.

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