Oct 27 2017

Turkish police leaks chats from U.S. consulate officer's phone

Turkish newspaper Hürriyet had reported last week that the United States have sent a diplomatic note for the return of the phone used by Metin Topuz, the U.S. consular officer detained in Turkey for his alleged involvement in the 2013 graft probe.

The U.S. Embassy argues that the phone and its contents are protected by the 1963 Vienna Convention on the Consular Relations [pdf], which regulates the communication between the consulate and the home country as inviolable.

The Turkish side, however, maintains that Topuz, a Turkish citizen, is arrested by court on charges of "crimes against the state" and "international espionage". The evidence on Topuz, as leaked on Turkey's pro-government press, is mostly of his meetings with the Turkish police chiefs later accused of involvement in the July 2016 failed coup attempt. The Americans claim it was part of Topuz's consular work, who was a contact officer on security matters, to meet with Turkish security officials.

After the arrest of Topuz, the U.S. Embassy took the unprecedented step of suspending visa services in Turkey, citing the concerns for "the security of U.S. Mission facilities and personnel", an action Ankara says 'disproportionate'.

Yet, the real matter, now revealed, is the Reza Zarrab's trial that is due to start in November. The Iran-born gold trader was a central figure of the 2013 graft investigation, but was cleared after Erdoğan government intervened by removing prosecutors from the case. Zarrab now sits in a U.S. prison for violating international sanctions against Iran, and the U.S. inquiry seem hard to get around for Erdoğan even after he pressured the Trump to remove Preet Bharara, the New York South District attorney who filed the original charges against Zarrab. After Bharara's removal from the post by Trump in March, the inquiry proceeded with charging Hakan Atilla, the former deputy head of Halkbank, Turkey's largest state-owned bank, and Erdoğan's former Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan.

According to Hürriyet, Topuz was accused of personally carrying an expert witness report, regarding the banking scheme of the 2013 graft network, to the U.S. officials. That report, it is claimed, formed the ground for the changes against the former Turkish banker.

A week after reports appeared on U.S. request for Topuz's phone, Hürriyet revealed that the Istanbul prosecutor's office had instructed the police cyber division to crack the phone's password and they managed to retrieve the information inside it. According to a WhatsApp conversation published on Hürriyet, Topuz alerted the news of Zarrab's arrest to a U.S. Istanbul Consulate diplomat, then the two discussed possible repercussions of an FBI investigation on Zarrab's companies in Turkey.

However, the Hürriyet reporter, Toygun Atilla, who initially broke the news of the phone being cracked, later said it is possible that Topuz himself might have provided the password. A lawyer for Metin Topuz, Halit Akalp, confirmed his client providing the password of the phone because "there is nothing to hide".

Regardless of the method, Turkey's persistence to charge a U.S. consulate employee for espionage, and leaking the contents of his conversations with U.S. diplomats to the press by disregarding the immunity request, show the level of strain in the relation between two NATO members.

Read Hurriyet's original report here: