Austria scrambles to stop Turkish political meetings as row spreads

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 10, 2017 9:54 AM

By Shadia Nasralla

VIENNA (Reuters) - Three planned Turkish political meetings in Austria were canceled on Friday in the latest signs of unease across Europe over a series of campaign events to rally support among expatriate Turks for President Tayyip Erdogan.

A spokesman for police in the city of Linz said the private owner of a venue there had canceled an event featuring a party colleague of Erdogan.

The town of Hoerbranz near the German border canceled a separate event with a former Turkish minister because the organizers falsely labeled it as a book presentation.

Another event was scrapped in Herzogenburg, and a fourth town, Wiener Neutstadt, was looking for a way to cancel a meeting planned for Sunday.

"Now we can only try to find out if there is some kind of law somewhere which we can apply to prohibit the event," a spokesman for the mayor of Wiener Neustadt said, referring to fire safety rules as a possible reason for a ban.

Some European countries have blocked planned appearances by Turkish politicians to drum up support for Erdogan before an April 16 referendum on giving him sweeping new powers.

Relations between Turkey and the European Union deteriorated last year when EU members criticized Erdogan for a mass crackdown on opponents in the wake of a failed coup.

Austria's interior minister said on Tuesday he wanted to change the law to permit a ban on foreign officials making speeches in the country if human rights or public order are threatened, but the bill has not reached parliament yet.

Turkish law forbids election campaigning abroad and in diplomatic missions. Ministers are circumventing the ban by holding what they say are cultural events with Turkish citizens abroad.

Around 116,000 Turkish nationals live in Austria, a country of about 8.7 million.

A Linz police spokesman said police had no grounds to ban the event there, meaning it would have gone ahead if the venue owner had not pulled out.

"If you want the police to get active, you have to change the law," the spokesman said.

Having survived the July coup, Erdogan says the referendum is needed to stabilize the country. European politicians accuse him of using the coup as a pretext for mass arrests and dismissals that stifle dissent.

Although several rallies by Turkish ministers have been canceled in Germany over security concerns, Berlin has said they can campaign provided they respect local law.

The Dutch government has said it would not welcome the Turkish foreign minister to the Netherlands if he was coming to solicit the votes of local Turks.

Swiss police canceled a speech by a Turkish politician planned for Friday, citing "significant security risks".

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)