Fate of US-based cleric in the balance as Ankara lobbies Washington

Sunday 23/10/2016
US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, last July. (Reuters)

Washington - Turkey is stepping up pres­sure on Washington to ex­tradite the elderly Muslim cleric whom Ankara says masterminded the coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag is to travel to Washing­ton to press the issue. “If they don’t extradite him, it is obvious that Turkish-American relations will not be the same,” Bozdag told Turkish state broadcaster TRT, re­ferring to Fethullah Gulen, 77. Er­dogan warned of undisclosed con­sequences for bilateral ties if the extradition procedure drags on, saying Turkey could start talking about “very sensitive things”.
Bozdag is expected to press US Attorney General Loretta Lynch for a quick decision about Gulen but there is no sign that the Obama White House is ready to hand the cleric over and the decision could well be left to the next administra­tion.
Erdogan claims that Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania and heads a religious movement with hundreds of thousands of followers in Turkey, organised the July 15th uprising by some of Turkey’s armed forces. Gu­len denies the charge.
The coup attempt, which led to more than 250 deaths, failed after most units of the military refused to join and thousands of Erdogan supporters took to the streets in protest. The government has since fired or suspended about 100,000 soldiers, police officers, judges, teachers and officials suspected of membership in Gulen’s Hizmet (“Service”) movement. More than 30,000 people are in jail awaiting trial in what government critics call a witch hunt.
Evidence supplied by Turkey to the United States deals with Gulen’s alleged attempts to undermine the Turkish state prior to July 15th, a diplomatic source in Washington told The Arab Weekly. A US govern­ment official said the documents sent by Ankara are insufficient to convince US courts that Gulen should be extradited. Additional documents, related to the cleric’s role in the coup attempt, are said to be being prepared.
Washington’s refusal to extradite or detain Gulen has angered offi­cials in Ankara. Erdogan’s support­ers have accused Washington of playing a role in the coup attempt, something the US government de­nies. The row over Gulen has shak­en a relationship already strained because of US support for Syrian Kurdish groups that Ankara views as terrorist organisations.
Serdar Kilic, Turkey’s ambassa­dor to Washington, admitted the dif­ficulty of convincing US officials of the dimensions of Gulen’s alleged plot. “It’s like trying to explain a surrealistic Fellini movie,” Kilic told the Los Angeles Times. “This is something very difficult for the American people to understand.”
Bozdag expressed frustration about Washington’s approach. “Even the current content of the dossier we have sent to the United States leaves no doubt… that this coup attempt was planned and car­ried out by Fethullah Gulen,” the minister told the Hurriyet Daily News newspaper.
Robert Pearson, a former US ambassador to Turkey, said it was obvious that US officials have not seen evidence proving that Gulen directed the coup from US soil. “If Turkey had a document or a phone conversation that was that kind of evidence, they would have pro­duced it,” Pearson told a panel at the Middle East Institute in Wash­ington, “and, therefore, we are faced with the issue of circumstan­tial evidence, which is a very diffi­cult issue to resolve.”
James Jeffrey, another former US ambassador to Ankara, told the same panel there was some truth to the Turkish view that Washington was not keen to deal with the Gu­len issue. “US government lawyers hate cases like this,” Jeffrey said. “If they are not pushed from the top, they will delay and always want more evidence.”
The usual procedure sees an ex­tradition request first vetted by US government lawyers. If they con­clude that the material is convinc­ing, they send the file to the courts. Should the judicial procedure end with an extradition order, the deci­sion about whether to send Gulen to Turkey lies with the US secretary of State, who can reject the extradi­tion if there are doubts that Gulen would receive a fair trial in Turkey.
A Turkish diplomat told The Arab Weekly that Ankara expected Wash­ington to deal with Gulen’s extradi­tion as quickly as possible. “We are not talking about a common crime,” the diplomat said. “We are talking about a man who has tried to take down the Turkish state.”
The transition between the out­going and the incoming US admin­istrations should have no bearing on the judicial process, he said, “because judges won’t change”.
Jeffrey suggested that US author­ities should ensure that Gulen does not stir up things in Turkey from Pennsylvania and could check or block the cleric’s communication channels. Such steps could “limit any possibility of another coup at­tempt emanating from the United States”, he said.