US ambassador unapologetic over charges of staffer's terrorism links

DAILY SABAH
ISTANBUL
Published 11.10.2017 00:10

Two days after an unprecedented visa ban on Turkish citizens by the U.S. Embassy, Ambassador John Bass released a video defending the ban. The ambassador proclaimed the innocence of Metin Topuz, a U.S. Consulate Istanbul employee whose arrest for links to the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) triggered the ban. He dismissed the serious terrorism charges against the man and took a pre-emptive defense against the possible arrests of U.S. mission staff in the future, saying they expect other Turkish staffers at U.S. missions to be arrested.

Dismissing evidence of Topuz's contact with hundreds of FETÖ suspects, the outgoing ambassador said they were unaware of the existence of the evidence in the video released late Monday.

Topuz, who told investigators he works for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), was arrested last week after prosecutors discovered his alleged close contact with dozens of former police chiefs and officers jailed for links to FETÖ. The U.S. Embassy in Ankara was quick to denounce the arrest they claimed was on "anonymous, baseless allegations" in a statement on Thursday and on Sunday announced a visa ban for travelers from Turkey.

The consulate employee is not the first suspect facing terrorism charges, nor will he be the last employee of a U.S. mission questioned for links to terrorist groups. On Monday, Turkish prosecutors announced that they had summoned another consulate employee identified as N.M.C. for his family's suspected links to FETÖ. His wife and son were also detained for alleged close ties to the group, and according to unconfirmed reports, were also in touch with Topuz. Earlier this year, an interpreter working for the U.S. Consulate in Adana was arrested for suspected links to the PKK, another terrorist group.

Although the visa ban was criticized for being "not diplomatic" and "politically charged" by the Turkish media, Bass was rather diplomatic in his latest statement. He piled the blame on "some Turkish officials who have provided information about the allegations to certain news outlets."

He also described Topuz's job as to "strengthen law enforcement cooperation between the United States and Turkey."

Topuz is charged with espionage and violating constitutional order, a terrorism charge. "The suspect had phone contact with 121 people investigated for links to FETÖ and contacted people using ByLock hundreds of times," one section of the indictment reported by Anadolu Agency (AA) claims, referring to the encrypted messaging app used by the terrorist group. "The suspect acted as a liaison between members of FETÖ and its leader, Fetullah Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania," the indictment adds, claiming there is strong evidence requiring his arrest.

According to the indictment, the suspect was in contact with a number of former police chiefs in Istanbul where he worked, and all of those police chiefs were involved in the 2013 coup attempts by FETÖ members in the judiciary and law enforcement. He was also in touch with Oktay Akkaya, a former lieutenant colonel who was among the main actors in the 2016 coup attempt. Among his other contacts, Topuz personally met and had phone calls with Zekeriya Öz, a fugitive former prosecutor implicated in a string of FETÖ-linked plots to imprison the group's critics, as well as the 2013 coup attempts. A secret witness told prosecutors that Topuz arranged a meeting with Zekeriya Öz, and the two men asked him to testify as a false witness against someone he was acquainted with. The witness was a friend of Topuz, and he obliged when Topuz invited him to a meeting with Öz in 2008, the year when the now fugitive prosecutor was conducting investigations against several well-known people. Topuz told his friend that he would be a secret witness in the Ergenekon case, and he would only "have to memorize some 11 names." When the witness told them it would be "perjury," Topuz told him they would "help the state." The deal for being a false witness fell through when the witness was opposed to committing perjury. Mehmet Karatepe, the acquaintance of the witness, would be acquitted of an Ergenekon-related case in 2012 due to lack of evidence.

Further downplaying the terrorism charges against Topuz, Bass said he was arrested for "simply speaking to Turkish officials or the wider Turkish public."

"We don't know if these arrests are singular events or if we should expect other Turkish staff members to be arrested," he added.

This is not the first time that staff members at a U.S. mission have been in the limelight of the Turkish media for what reports call "dubious contact" with FETÖ-linked figures. Before Adil Öksüz, the alleged mastermind of the 2016 coup attempt, dumped his cellphone and disappeared after his controversial release, he received a call from an Istanbul telephone number. Someone from the U.S. Consulate called the former theology lecturer to inform him that his visa application had been canceled, according to the U.S. Embassy. It is not known whether it was Metin Topuz himself who called Öksüz.

According to an indictment in the infamous National Intelligence Organization (MİT) trucks incident a few years ago, Muharrem Gözüküçük and Bayram Andaç called the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Consulate one day after the raid by FETÖ-linked officials on trucks belonging to the intelligence service in March 2014. Both men are civilian "imams" for FETÖ according to prosecutors, a term used to describe FETÖ's operatives who commanded the group's members in the military, police, judiciary and bureaucracy. Andaç organized the controversial raid in southern Turkey that raised outrage and, on Jan. 20, made three phone calls to these U.S. missions in Turkey. While it is not clear which consulate he called, it is likely that he contacted the consulate in Adana where the raid was executed. Andaç made phone calls again to the consulate on Jan. 21 and Jan. 24. A teacher by profession, Andaç was a high-ranking figure in FETÖ. The other suspect in the indictment, Gözüküçük, a civil servant in the Labor Ministry, was the "handler" of Col. Erdal Turna, a senior military intelligence officer in Ankara who wiretapped the phones of MİT staff members and uncovered the secret MİT operation. Gözüküçük called the U.S. Embassy twice on March 6, 2014, according to the indictment. The calls are highly suspicious as they were made from cellphones used by the suspects only after the raid. A prosecutor in the MİT trucks raid case earlier claimed that the incident was the "joint work of FETÖ and foreign intelligence services." FETÖ-linked media outlets portrayed the raid as evidence that Turkey had supplied arms to terrorists in Syria.

In February, police detained Hamza Uluçay, a Turkish man working as an interpreter for the U.S. Consulate in Adana, for his links to the terrorist group the PKK. Uluçay, a longtime employee of the U.S. Consulate in the city of Adana, is accused of "inciting the public to rally" after the shooting of a senior PKK militant in anti-terror operations. AA reported that Uluçay traveled to the southeastern city of Mardin, where the senior militant code-named "Behzat" was killed, and orchestrated pro-PKK rallies to denounce the killing of Behzat, who was implicated in a string of terror attacks. The suspect was wanted by the order of prosecutors in Mardin and was detained as he left the consulate.

FETÖ, which posed as a religious charity movement for years before it tried to seize power in Turkey with three coup plots in 2013 and 2016, found safe haven in the U.S. after Gülen moved there in 1999.

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