Turkey-UAE tensions rise after suspicious death in jail
ISTANBUL - The death of a Palestinian man arrested in Turkey as a suspected spy for the United Arab Emirates and a life sentence given a Turkish citizen by a court in the Emirates are raising tensions between the two countries.
Ties between Turkey and several Gulf countries were already strained over Turkish support for Qatar in the row with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt.
Relations suffered another setback when Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last October and Ankara blamed the kingdom’s leadership for the crime. Through leaks to pro-government media, Turkey tried to embarrass the US administration into taking retaliatory measures against Saudi Arabia.
Qatar boosted its relations with Ankara by promising $15 billion in investments to support the ailing Turkish economy. The White House said April 30 that the Trump administration was mulling a plan to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, a step that could further sharpen those divisions.
Like Qatar, Turkey has supported the Brotherhood, seen as a deadly enemy in Riyadh and elsewhere. Several Brotherhood members have found shelter in Turkey.
Now relations could become much worse, a Turkish opposition lawmaker said. “Incidents like that could increase tensions,” Nazmi Gur, a member of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, said by telephone.
Istanbul’s state prosecution said Zaki Yousef Mubarak Hassan, one of two Palestinian men arrested on spying charges in April, was found dead in his cell in the high-security prison in Silivri. Prosecutors said Hassan hanged himself on a bathroom door.
The prosecution said it began an investigation into the case and ordered an autopsy. There was no information about the result of the autopsy.
Hassan and the other man, identified by Turkish media as Samir Samih Shabaan, had been charged with “political, military and international espionage.”
Reports said the Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation had been following the two suspects for about half a year and determined that the two men were in touch with people in several parts of the country before they were arrested.
Hassan and Shabaan confessed during interrogation that they had been spying on Arab dissidents in Turkey on behalf of the United Arab Emirates, Turkish officials said.
Turkish media reports said the pair told investigators they had been tasked with building a “new spy net” in Turkey after Saudi Arabia lost its intelligence network in the country due to the Khashoggi killing. Turkish authorities were also investigating the possibility the spying suspects could have been involved in the Khashoggi killing. They did not provide evidence supporting that accusation.
Several Turkey experts expressed doubts about the motives and timing of Ankara’s announcement of the arrest of Hassan and Shabaan. They said it could be a “diversionary move” to draw attention away from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s woes at home after an electoral defeat. They also attributed it to the Turkish leader’s desire to exploit the Khashoggi case to his political advantage.
Neither the Turkish leadership nor the UAE government commented on Hassan’s suspected suicide but statements by Turkish nationalists and Hassan’s family pointed to a possible further rise in tensions between the two countries.
Ibrahim Karagul, editor of the pro-government Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak, said the suspected spies had probably been sent to Turkey as part of a wider conspiracy by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt against Ankara. “Turkey is confronted with these countries’ open hostility,” Karagul wrote.
Hassan’s family accused Turkish authorities of killing Hassan. His son Yusuf told Al Arabiya from his home in Gaza that an international commission should investigate his father’s death.
“My father travelled to Turkey to make a living, to build us a future. We were surprised by his arrest since April 4 and we were more shocked by the false accusations against him,” Yusuf told Al Arabiya. He added that his father was a victim and “a scapegoat in a political conflict.”
Relations between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates received another jolt by the decision of the UAE Supreme Court upholding a life sentence against a Turkish citizen convicted of promoting Islamist groups in Syria and transferring funds out of the Gulf state.
The court in Abu Dhabi confirmed the sentence against the 49-year-old Turkish citizen for “launching an extensive campaign on a Facebook account named ‘Ali Ozturk Mehmet’ without getting an official permit” to promote “the ideologies of the two terrorist groups and sending them funds through money transfer companies in the UAE,” the state news agency WAM said.
Court documents cited by the news agency indicate the man was found guilty of “colluding” with former al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front and Ahrar Al-Sham, two radical groups in Syria. The Turkish national was accused by prosecutors of colluding with terrorist groups in Syria and was found guilty of fundraising activities in the United Arab Emirates for the two groups.