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Joey, Have You Ever Been in a Turkish Prison?

Words: Nicholas Norberg
Pictures: Getty Images

It’s no secret that Turkey isn’t the most cooperative of American allies, but the current diplomatic crisis is downright ridiculous. Early in October, Istanbul police arrested Metin Topuz, a Turkish national who has long worked as a translator and liaison for the US consulate in Istanbul. Many of his duties dealt with coordination between American and Turkish law enforcement.

Topuz is accused of what seems to be the usual rigmarole – membership in US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen’s secret organization, complicity in the conspiracy to overthrow Erdoğan, and general disloyalty. No surprises there. The timing of the arrest, however, is a lot more interesting than the charges. Topuz’ arrest comes in the wake of increasing Congressional pressure to reign in Turkish security personnel in the United States who beat protesters like its going out of style. In case you missed it, Turkish security smacked around protesters outside Brookings when Erdoğan visited in March, 2016, at the Turkish embassy in D.C. last May, and most recently in New York during Mr. Erdoğan’s UN address in September. In August, American authorities indicted members of Erdoğan’s security detail who beat protesters, amidst rising energy in Congress to reprimand Turkey for its treatment of protesters in the US.

Ostensibly, Topuz’ arrest has nothing to do with the American reprimands against Turkish security officers. At the same time, Turkish authorities are using the case to show off their judiciary independence, a veiled reference to the American indictments of Turkish personnel. It’s a petty move, but in line with Erdoğan’s mounting irritation with his Western allies.

Keep in mind that the arrest of Mr. Topuz and the legal action against Turkish security guards in the US are categorically different. Unless Turkey provides the American delegation there with proof of the allegations against Mr. Topuz, it is hard not to view them as sensationalized. Is Mr. Topuz actually a staunch Gülen partisan with nefarious aims against the Erdoğan administration? Or did he simply come into contact with several of the many police and judicial officials with ties to Gülen-affiliated institutions?

A long-standing employee like Mr. Topuz could not have helped but connect with Gülen supports working in the public sector before their split with Erdoğan. It is equally possible that Turkey hopes the Trump administration will grow sick of its hostility and extradite the big, bad, cancer-stricken Gülen himself – the holy grail of Turkish foreign policy at the moment. Topuz could be joining the likes of Andrew Bunson, the pastor Turkey jailed last year and who Turkey appears to be offering in exchange for Gülen. Bunson and Topuz are both small fish compared to Gülen, but Turkey’s arrests are becoming increasingly annoying to American policy there.

Turkey needs to convincingly demonstrate Mr. Topuz’s ill intent if they wish to keep him under lock and key. Likewise, if Ankara wants Gülen, Turkish officials should demonstrate the validity of their claim on him. As long as the conspiracy-theory haze hangs over Turkey’s attitude towards Gülen, its actions will continue to look reactive – even petulant.

Nicholas Norberg graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in Linguistics and Arabic, and he has worked as a Middle East and Turkey analyst at Dataminr. He currently writes for the Journal on Middle East Politics and Policy at Harvard University, where he is pursuing a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies.

Nicholas Norberg

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