Claims that US consulate employee denied legal access far from truth

MERYEM ILAYDA ATLAS
PRESIDENTIAL PLANE
Published
President Erdoğan said the sole cause of the visa crisis between Ankara and Washington was outgoing U.S. envoy John Bass
President Erdoğan said the sole cause of the visa crisis between Ankara and Washington was outgoing U.S. envoy John Bass

President Erdoğan said claims that the U.S. Istanbul Consulate employee arrested on Oct. 4 was denied legal representation and access to a lawyer could not be further from truth, contending that the departing ambassador was responsible for the latest crisis affecting relations with the U.S.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, speaking to reporters on his return flight from Serbia early Thursday, said no one had denied access to a Turkish employee from the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, who was arrested on suspicion of terrorism-linked crimes, adding that claims to the contrary were false.

Metin Topuz was detained in late September before being arrested on Oct. 4, on charges of collusion and communication with members of the Gülenist Terrorist Group (FETÖ). Reports say he has been a consulate employee since 1982, and that he told investigators he works for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Prosecutors claim there is direct evidence of contacts between Topuz and hundreds of FETÖ suspects. The U.S. Embassy in Ankara was quick to denounce the arrest it claimed was on "anonymous, baseless allegations" in a statement last week before announcing a suspension of all non-immigrant visas at its missions in Turkey on Sunday. Ankara subsequently imposed a similar visa ban on U.S. nationals coming to Turkey.

Claims that Topuz was denied access to lawyers or family was patently false, Erdoğan asserted. "The arrest took place on Oct. 4. From then until Oct. 10, no application was made to the Istanbul Prosecutor's Office to gain access to him, neither by his family nor by his lawyer. If they had, our stance is clear. They can, of course, speak with him."

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who was with the president at the question and answer session on the presidential plane, said Topuz had asked for his lawyer on Wednesday and he would be meeting with his lawyer on Friday [Today].

Also, any arrest by the court necessitates the presence of the lawyer of the suspect, so on Oct. 4, Topuz's lawyer should have been present at the side of his client.

Turkey has been waging a comprehensive legal and security offensive against FETÖ, which is accused of carrying out last year's deadly coup attempt. The group's leader, Fetullah Gülen, currently lives in his huge compound in Pennsylvania, U.S., and successive U.S. administrations have taken no action to extradite him despite repeated requests from Ankara.

Together with the PKK's Syrian affiliate Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People's Protection Units (YPG), which is supported by the U.S. in the fight against Daesh in northern Syria, FETÖ remains the main stumbling block in improving ties between Ankara and Washington.

Erdoğan claimed U.S. Ambassador John Bass was the sole cause of the latest crisis between the two countries, adding: "He is leaving in a few days anyway."

The ambassador caused the crisis between Turkey and the U.S. and naturally he could not be trusted to oversee efforts to resolve the matter, Erdoğan contended, arguing that the commission agreed to between Çavuşoğlu and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would meet in the coming days to focus on the issue.

RECIPROCITY NOT RETALIATION

Once the U.S. had suspended visa services at its mission in the country, Turkey, as a country with a century-old tradition of diplomacy, had no option but to respond in kind as part of the principle of reciprocity, the president said.

Erdoğan also dismissed the argument that Turkish personnel working at embassies could not be detained or arrested. "If someone committed a crime, they will most definitely be prosecuted."

He also rejected the accusation that Ankara retaliated. "Turkey is a country governed by the rule of law. It doesn't retaliate."

However, he also voiced a list of grieves that, he argued, demonstrated the U.S. failure to abide by the same principles.

He said Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab, detained by customs officials on charges of violating the U.S. embargo on Iran, was detained almost two years ago but still had not faced a court. He also cited the arrest of the deputy general manager of Halkbank, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, who went to the U.S. six times without any problems, but was arrested the seventh time on similar charges.

He also took issue at the charges laid against 13 of his bodyguards for the altercation with what he called PKK supporters during his visit to Washington in May. "Some weren't even in the U.S. at the time. Some were with my wife, nowhere near the scene. No one can explain to me what all this is. They make a show of detaining a couple of terrorist group members who tried to attack me before releasing them, but two patriots who resisted the attackers are still in jail."

He said such conduct is unacceptable, as was the way the U.S. treats FETÖ suspects.

"There are FETÖ agents working at their consulates. These are not diplomats but agents. Similar agents are in the U.S., in very close relations with U.S. Congress," he railed.

He said Gülen was kept safe in Pennsylvania, and allowed to rule over his criminal network.

Erdoğan said he could not understand how U.S. authorities could ignore 85 boxes full of evidence he said proves Gülen's complicity in last year's coup attempt and previous crimes.

"Sorry, but such behavior is unbecoming of a strategic ally. Additionally, what we are seeing in Syria is also clear. They support a terrorist group [YPG] to fight another terrorist group [Daesh]. They armed one terrorist group, telling us that they recorded each serial number of every weapon and will be collecting them back once the fighting ends. Such statements are not plausible. Could they collect the weapons in Iraq? No. What they do is nothing but strengthening the terror corridor along northern Syria."

When asked about a YPG delegation hosted in Moscow, Erdoğan said he did not know the context of the visit. "We just know that it happened. Is this a particular Russian maneuver? We'll get the details from intelligence."

REVITALIZING THE AK PARTY

The president, who is also the chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) said its local branches are undergoing a much-needed renewal process in preparation for the local, national and presidential elections in March 2019.

He said that the resignation of Kadir Topbaş as mayor of the Greater Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality was part of this process and would be repeated across the country.

There was serious pressure from the party base for the leadership to take immediate action to revitalize local party hierarchies, he said. "Declarations such as anyone elected to office can only be removed through elections are not applicable here. These mayors are selected through party by-elections. There are mayors who have been serving for 20, 23 and even 24 years. There is no rule that a mayor will serve three terms."

He said the calculations were based on voting trends in previous elections and if the party's support is decreasing, it shows that change is needed.

The party leadership will be deciding on how to proceed, Erdoğan said, asking mayors to accede to the party's decisions with grace, as Topbaş had.

When asked about his meeting last week with Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek, who has been in his post since 1994, Erdoğan said the meeting centered on the planned museum and Martyrs Park next to the Presidential Palace complex in Ankara. "However, we also had the opportunity to discuss the matters I mentioned before. As I said, this is not limited to Melih Gökçek. For example, when asked, the mayors of Düzce and Niğde had no objection. We hope to conclude our discussions in the coming weeks and proceed accordingly. Time is of the essence."

When asked if there are any mayors who objected to the resignation on their own accord apart from those in Ankara and Balıkesir, Erdoğan also included the mayor of Bursa.

UKRAINE AND SERBIA

Erdoğan was speaking to reporters after a three-day visit to Ukraine and Serbia.

In Ukraine, he signed nine agreements to further develop commercial ties to increase bilateral trade volume to $10 billion by 2023 from the current level of around $4 billion.

There were also discussions concerning cooperation in the defense sector, the president added, especially in the joint manufacture of motors, planes, drones, rockets and other weapons systems.

To help the Crimean Tatar community in Ukraine, Turkey had pledged to build a mosque in Kiev, he said, adding that the project was awaiting the allocation of a plot of land by Ukrainian authorities.

On his visit to Serbia, the most important official development was the commencement of the High-Level Strategic Council. "We signed 16 separate agreements with Serbia during the visit. We will increase bilateral trade volume to first $3 billion and then $5 billion." He said the two countries agreed to increase cooperation in energy, especially concerning the building of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) and the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline Project (TANAP)

He also noted the huge interest generated among Serbian officials for an improved land transportation network between Serbia, Turkey, Albania and Bulgaria.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic also shared his determination to eradicate FETÖ in the region, Erdoğan said.

Erdoğan mentioned the pleasure of visiting Novi Bazaar, where he met with the mayor and ministers. "One agreement we signed there is especially important for us. It will allow us to renovate the historical monuments there." The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) will be more active in that region, the president said.

"We also promised our help in the building of the Belgrade-Sarajevo highway, which faces some problems. Serbs want in to pass the Sandjak region while Bosnians want it to pass through Tuzla. They gave us maps, which we will study." The highway is important to rejuvenate the economies of the whole region and that needs to be taken into account, Erdoğan said.

Turkey presented Vucic with a plan to please both Serbs and Bosnians, Erdoğan said. "We want these to become peace highways between Serbs, Bosnians and Croats. I think I persuaded the president. He told me that he will study our proposals."

"The way they treated us in Novi Bazaar was incredible," he added.

Concerning the surprise some EU officials voiced about the way he was treated in Serbia, Erdoğan said: "It is only natural for them to feel that way. They see the Balkans as their backyard. That's why they'll be annoyed. Let them be annoyed. We have no intention of asking for their approval. I invited Vucic to Turkey. Hopefully, he will come before next May."

S-400 PROJECT GOING ACCORDING TO PLAN

When asked if there were any glitches affecting Ankara's plan to purchase the S-400 missile defense system from Russia or whether Turkey is interested in U.S. Patriot missile systems, Erdoğan said there were no problems in the S-400 program.

"The first batch will be produced by Russia alone, but we hope to produce the second batch together. As per our discussions with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, we have no intention to limit our cooperation on the S-400 systems. We had some talks about the S-500 systems and we hope to make some progress in that regard. We have no interest in the Patriot systems, which are becoming dated."

THE BARZANI PROBLEM

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani's decision to hold an independence referendum will result in all doors to the outside world being shut, Erdoğan asserted. "We, together with Iran, are determined to proceed in this regard. I will meet with our officials tomorrow [Friday] and proceed accordingly."

He said humanitarian aid to the people of the KRG would be given to Baghdad, which will find ways to distribute it. "We have already stopped all flights to the KRG. Soon we will take action against all flights going to Irbil and Sulaymaniyah. We hope the matter is resolved before we need to take any more action."

The people of the KRG were paying for the mistake committed by their leadership, Erdoğan argued. "All doors to the outside world are shut. What will they do but rebel?"

Erdoğan said delaying independence is unacceptable. "What we want is a return to the status quo as it was before the vote. There is one reason why the situation deteriorated so far, and that is that the KRG leadership is finding it hard to preserve its status. It committed a blatant mistake for internal political reasons. They simply sacrificed all for domestic politics and their personal interests."

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