Biden urges Arab leaders to allow free speech

ISTANBUL Sun Dec 4, 2011 8:53am IST

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, accompanied by Archbishop Demetrios (L), Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, is greeted by Orthodox priests upon his arrival at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul December 3, 2011. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, accompanied by Archbishop Demetrios (L), Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, is greeted by Orthodox priests upon his arrival at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul December 3, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Murad Sezer

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ISTANBUL (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Saturday chided Arab leaders who restrict freedom of expression and said nations cannot thrive when people are not allowed to think for themselves.

"Democratic revolutions, like the ones in Tunisia, in Egypt and Libya, and the ones still unfolding in Syria and Yemen, are imbued with an entrepreneurial spirit," Biden told a meeting of young entrepreneurs in Istanbul.

"It is hard to think different if you are not free to think and openly express what you are thinking," Biden said, citing the advice of the late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple computers, to 'think different'. "Those who think the same do not hold the promise of progress."

Biden is on an eight-day trip that began in Iraq and ends in Greece on Monday. He visited Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday at his home in Istanbul, where the 57-year-old Turkish leader is recovering from November 26 keyhole abdominal surgery.

A senior U.S. administration official said they spent about an hour talking about Iraq, which U.S. troops are leaving by the end of the year. Iran and Syria were also discussed.

Washington would like Turkey to adopt a tougher stance against Tehran, but the official said there had been no "specific discussion of sanctions" during the meeting.

Both nations are worried about Syria, where an eight-month crackdown on pro-democracy protesters has fanned fears of wider regional instability. The U.S. official said Syria was discussed only briefly and the two did not touch on what comes next there.

The meeting with Erdogan, seen as the centrepiece of Biden's three-day visit, was closed to the media. It lasted roughly two hours, longer than the 45 minutes allotted in the vice president's schedule.

JOINT CONCERNS

The U.S. official said Erdogan had looked very well and had moved around without any apparent discomfort.

The Turkish government issued a statement on Monday saying Erdogan, who was elected for a third term in June, had had an operation and was in good health, but there could be speculation should he remain out of the public eye for too long.

Erdogan, once an ally of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, has bluntly told Assad to quit, and Turkey could play an important role there if the situation continues to deteriorate.

Non-Arab Turkey's democracy is often cited as a role model for other Muslim nations, as the Middle East copes with tumult from the Arab Spring that toppled regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and now threatens Assad in Syria.

Erdogan, whose AK Party has Islamist roots, is regarded as one of the most popular leaders in the Middle East, though critics question his democratic credentials, notably regarding the independence of the judiciary and press freedom.

While welcoming planned constitutional reforms in Turkey, Biden has raised concerns with Turkish officials over both the judiciary and the detention of journalists, a senior U.S. official said.

"The true wealth of a nation is found in the creative minds of its people and their freedom and ability to bring those ideas to life," Biden said. "None of this can happen without governments that guarantee the right to think differently."

(Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Peter Graff)

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