Mar 27 2019

Trial of U.S. staffer charged with spying continues in Turkey

The trial of a U.S. consulate staffer accused of spying and attempting to overthrow Turkey's government continued on Wednesday in Istanbul with the testimony of a secret witness, pro-government Sabah newspaper reported.

Metin Topuz, a Turkish citizen and Istanbul-based liaison with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, was seen shedding tears on his first day in court on Tuesday, according to Sözcü newspaper. Topuz was arrested in 2017 and has been accused of ties to U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, who Ankara says organised a failed 2016 coup.

"Metin Topuz was more like the owner of the place than an interpreter. This is my personal evaluation,'' Sabah quoted the witness as saying in reference to Topuz's access to the consulate's financial department. 

Fifty-nine-year-old Topuz, a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) interpreter, has denied the charges against him, while the U.S. embassy has called the accusations "wholly without merit". U.S. officials say freeing unjustly detained Turkish nationals on their staff is a priority, as is the case of NASA scientist Serkan Gölge, a dual US-Turkish national jailed on terror charges.

“The trial begins as relations between the United States and Turkey have worsened with disagreements over Syria's war, Turkey's purchase of Russian missiles and the U.S. refusal to extradite Gülen,” said AFP.

Topuz's hearing in Istanbul’s Çağlayan court is expected to last three days, with U.S. consulate staffer facing life in prison if found guilty, said AFP.

Another Istanbul consulate staffer, Mete Cantürk, is under house arrest and facing similar charges to Topuz.

In January, a judge convicted Hamza Uluçay, a former employee of the U.S. consulate in Adana, of helping outlawed Kurdish militants. He was released for time already served.

Topuz was formally charged in January, accused of contact with police officers and a former prosecutor suspected of links to the Gülen movement, according to state-run Anadolu news agency.

"This has been a big deal in Turkish-US relations, but Americans have reversed course from an earlier decision to impose visa bans and have decided to pursue a quiet diplomacy," Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP.

Since the failed 2016 coup, tens of thousands of people have been detained over suspected links to Gülen, who denies the charges, and some 130,000 people have been dismissed from public sector jobs for being members of the movement.

U.S. relations with Turkey plummeted to a low last year over detained U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson, triggering tit-for-tat sanctions that depressed the Turkish lira. Relations improved after Brunson’s release in October.

But Ankara’s decision to buy S-400 missile systems from Russia has provoked warnings from Washington that the deal may impact its sale of US-made F-35 fighter jets to Turkey and trigger more sanctions, said AFP.