What does the case of Metin Topuz tell the world?
It may seem puzzling that only days after what was described as a cozy conversation between the U.S. President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a Turkish court sentenced a senior U.S. consular employee, Metin Topuz, to 8 years and 9 months in prison for aiding and abetting a "terrorist organisation".
It should not be puzzling: It is because we are living in times of global disorder, whose most worrisome symptom is a growing disrespect for fair trials, an independent judiciary and the rule of law. In addition, this most recent episode shows us what happens when a world power, which claims to be the champion of freedom, not only abandons the defence of universal ideals among its wobbly allies but also fails to the point of defending even innocent people employed by its institutions.
Topuz's case, seen from a higher altitude, cannot be distinguished from those of around 50,000 political prisoners - according to the findings of the Human Rights Watch - currently held in Turkey.
He has been held in prison since autumn 2017 - about 2 and a half years - on bogus charges, based on the distorted clauses of the Turkish Penal Code and the utterly problematic Anti-Terror Law, which both pave way for criminalising any dissent or perceived threats to the Turkish government.
Reuters reported that a 78-page indictment against Topuz - which included telephone calls, text messages and CCTV images - accused him links to officials who led a 2013 corruption investigation and were later accused of membership of the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, blamed by Ankara for organising the failed 2016 coup.
Along with "aiding terrorists", Topuz was also charged with espionage and attempting to overthrow the constitutional order - meaning he allegedly helped plot the attempted coup in July 2016, which Erdoğan, his Islamist movement and his ultra-nationalist allies blamed on the surface on Gülenists, but also more deeply on the United States.
The charges of espionage and attempting to overthrow the government made against Topuz were dropped, but the charges of aiding terrorism have sufficed to land him a lengthy prison sentence.
“We have seen no credible evidence to support this conviction and hope it will swiftly be overturned,” the U.S. Embassy in Ankara said in a statement, but this polite diplomatic language will fall into deaf ears.
It is a well known fact that Topuz - just like another consular employee, Hamza Uluçay, as well as Serkan Gölge, a NASA scientist, and pastor Andrew Brunson - was a pawn in a dirty power game launched by Erdoğan against Washington, and another victim in his ruthless treatment of those he sees as enemies targeting him and his immediate power circles.
Uluçay, a translator and a fixer at the U.S. consulate in Adana, and a man highly respected among Turkey's Kurdish circles, was sentenced to four and a half years in jail but released by a court due to time served. He is on parole, and unable to travel abroad.
Gölge, a young NASA employee, was arrested and tried on terrorism charges in 2017. He was eventually found guilty of "aiding a terrorist organisation" - charges which, it seemed, even the prosecutors barely believed themselves - and was sentenced to five years in prison.
Then, as part of a 'diplomatic gesture' by Erdoğan, Gölge was released, to remain on parole with his family. Ahval's Ergun Babahan described how Gölge was used as a pawn in the game staged between Trump and Erdoğan some time ago.
"Unaware of what was to come, Gölge was counting down the days in prison. That day, Erdoğan was scheduled to speak on the phone with U.S. President Donald Trump. Ahead of the meeting, Erdoğan's advisors thought of a gesture that would please Trump. The only hope among Erdoğan's administration for Turkish-U.S. relations, which have been strained since the S-400 (missile defence) dilemma, is that Trump would treat them with understanding. Russian President Vladimir Putin is also expecting the same treatment Trump on the issue.
When the advisors were thinking about what to do, they thought of Gölge and said, 'let's release Gölge.' Erdoğan then accepted this and provided instructions. There's no court or petition involved.
A phone call was then made to the prison, and the guards went to Serkan Gölge's cell and told him to get his belongings together and that he was being released. Gölge quickly gathered his belongings, was placed in a car, and released in the sticks a few kilometres away from Hatay in southern Turkey. It was similar to how the mafia releases hostages after abducting them and getting ransom money.
Gölge had no cell phone. He started walking until he reached a village. He told the villagers his situation, and they found a cell phone and successfully contacted his family. His parents came in a hurry to take their son home."
As for Pastor Brunson, he was fortunate to be an American citizen with a strong image as an evangelist that could be used for political purposes by Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Detained on charges of aiding and abetting both Gülenists and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) - which is like placing Likud and Hamas in the same box - Brunson was sentenced to three and a half years in prison but was eventually released and sent back to the United States.
In the cynical game, in line with the Trump administration's lack of moral principles, the three other aforementioned U.S. employees have been left to their fate in Turkey, accepted as victims, even by their employers.
Topuz has suffered the most, sharing the agony of tens of thousands of political prisoners of Turkey; including journalists like Ahmet Altan, civil society activists like Osman Kavala, politicians like Selahattin Demirtaş, and many others. Topuz must feel abandoned, left like prey.
"Topuz was... arrested on trumped up charges during the purge," commented Prof Howard Eissenstat, an Associate Professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University and Nonresident Senior Fellow of Project on Middle East and Democracy, in a series of tweets.
"(He) worked for the U.S Consulate in Istanbul for nearly three decades. Specifically, he worked as liaison and fixer for U.S. law enforcement agencies with their Turkish counterparts. Of course, for much of that time, Gülenists played an important part in Turkish law enforcement, so Topuz worked with them. It isn't like he could pick and choose whom the Turkish authorities placed in positions of power."
"Aside from that," Eissenstat continued, "his trial looks like other purge cases: innuendo, non-sequiturs, and guilt by association. In October, 2017, the U.S. finally took action, imposing visa bans until its consular staff were released or credible evidence could be produced. Two-months later, in December 2017, the U.S. removed the ban in return for vague promises. It certainly looks like the U.S. unilaterally capitulated."
"In August, 2018, the U.S. imposed more far-reaching sanctions. Consular staff were mentioned, but it was clear that the emphasis was on Brunson. Trump promised more of the same when Turkey stalled. In October, 2018 Brunson was released. Trump and Erdoğan’s bromance renews. In January, 2019, Hamza Uluçay was released after two years in prison (I believe technically he still does not have full freedom of movement).
As for Topuz... well, it looks like he is looking at more than seven years of prison for doing his job."
Back to the first point. How to explain the ruling against Topuz when recent reports spoke about a new rapprochement between Trump and Erdoğan?
Simple. Both populists - one an autocrat and the other a wanna-be - continue to cling to each other, placing their eggs in each other's baskets while people like Topuz - who I am sure now regrets accepting employment by the world’s preeminent superpower, since it is helpless or unwilling to protect an innocent man - remain as pawns in a give-and-take scheme.
The case of Topuz has no surprising aspect. One would only hope that it helps highlight the plight of all the political prisoners who are victims of a primitive, brutal, ugly power struggle in Turkey, which has sadly turned into a place where lawlessness and cruelty reign.