May, eager to strike a post-Brexit free trade deal with Turkey, said the UK was always prepared to extradite Kurdish terrorists if the evidence was provided. Erdoğan believes that the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, currently in the US, was behind the 2016 failed military coup.
May said that while it was right that those who sought to overthrow a democratically elected government were brought to justice, “it is also important that in the defence of democracy… Turkey does not lose sight of the values it is seeking to defend”.
May added: “That is why today I have underlined to President Erdoğan that we want to see democratic values and international human rights obligations upheld.”
But Erdoğan ignored her strictures, saying: “You have to make a distinction between terrorists and journalists. We are talking about ... those who have been caught red-handed bearing weapons, those who have been killing people.
“Are we supposed to call them journalists just because they bear the credentials and identity cards? Currently, the Turkish judiciary is prosecuting and sentencing individuals who have been associated with terrorism and involved in terrorist actions.”
According to the P24 press freedom group, there are more than 160 journalists behind bars in Turkey, most of whom were arrested under the state of emergency imposed after the coup attempt.
May also hailed an agreement to improve cooperation over the extradition of foreign fighters arrested in Turkey. Turkey says it has detained 6,000 foreign fighters, mainly on the side of Islamic State inside Syria.
The two countries are seeking to increase trade from $15bn a year to $20bn (£11.1bn to £14.8bn), with a defence partnership at the heart of the agreement. Rolls Royce is currently bidding to co-build the engine for Turkey’s new TFX fighter jet.
Erdoğan has been using the visit, which included a meeting with the Queen in Buckingham Palace, as a backdrop for his campaign to win presidential elections on 24 June, but an important TV interview with Bloomberg backfired when said he wanted to retain closer control of interest rates after he was elected president with executive powers. His remarks plunged the Turkish lira to a new low against the dollar as investors were spooked by Erdoğan’s unconventional view that high inflation is best tackled by low interest rates.
“I will take the responsibility as the indisputable head of the executive in respect of the steps to be taken and decisions on these issues,” he told Bloomberg.
The country is suffering from double-digit inflation, and investors worry that political interference will prevent the central bank from taking the tough decisions on interest rates necessary to keep the economy from spiralling out of control.
Outside Downing Street, a relatively small crowd of Kurds and free speech advocates protested against Erdogan’s visit.