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Push for trade with Turkey risks UK's human rights reputation: lawmakers

By William James

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain risks looking as though it has put defense and trade ties with Turkey ahead of human rights concerns as it pushes to secure a closer relationship with Ankara, a committee of lawmakers said on Saturday.

The warning comes as Prime Minister Theresa May prepares to begin negotiating Britain's exit from the European Union - enacting a decision made at a referendum last year which has forced the government to seek new allies and trading partners.

May and senior minister have visited Turkey this year to discuss tightening security cooperation to prevent Islamic State militants in neighboring Syria reaching Europe, and how to boost lucrative sales of defense systems to Ankara.

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But a committee of British lawmakers who visited Turkey to investigate bilateral relations, expressed concern at the direction of the diplomatic push.

"Our impression has been of two countries that share interests more than they share values, and the UK risks being perceived as de-prioritizing its concern for human rights in its drive to establish a 'strategic' relationship with Turkey," the report by the Foreign Affairs Committee said.

Turkey's own relationship with the EU, a bloc it has been moving at a snail's pace toward joining for decades, hangs in the balance. A referendum on handing President Tayyip Erdogan more executive powers has unnerved EU states, and Erdogan has said he wants to review political ties with the bloc.

The committee criticized the British Foreign Office's (FCO) understanding of Turkish domestic politics following a failed coup last July and said diplomatic funding cuts could undermine its ability to make the most of post-Brexit trade opportunities.

"The FCO knows too little for itself about who was responsible for the coup attempt in Turkey," the report said.

Turkish authorities have accused Fethullah Gulen of orchestrating the coup attempt. Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania since 1999, has denied involvement.

The committee, which took evidence from Gulenist groups, concluded that while individual Gulenists were involved in the coup attempt, evidence was so far inconclusive about the movement as a whole, or its leader, being responsible for it.

Rights groups and some of Turkey's Western allies fear Erdogan is using the coup as a pretext to stifle dissent, but he says mass sackings and arrests in the police army and judiciary are needed to protect democracy and root out Gulen supporters.

"These purges risk undermining Turkey's reputation, its economy, the UK's ability to trade there and the capabilities of the Turkish military against shared enemies such as ISIL (Islamic State)," said committee chairman Crispin Blunt.

"More fundamentally, they undermine the values of human rights and democracy in Turkey, already significantly weakened before the coup."

(Editing by Stephen Addison)