Turkey’s hope for US extradition of Gulen may be wishful thinking

Even if there were political backing from the White House for Turkey’s extradition request, a legal battle in the US courts could take years.
Tuesday 18/12/2018
In this July 2016 file photo, Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen speaks to members of the media at his compound in Saylorsburg, Pa. (AP)
In this July 2016 file photo, Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen speaks to members of the media at his compound in Saylorsburg, Pa. (AP)

ISTANBUL – Turkey’s government says there is a growing willingness by the Trump administration to consider the extradition of Ankara’s enemy number one from the  United States. But the display of confidence may reflect wishful thinking by Turkey rather than an actual change of heart in Washington.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has been pressing the United States for several years to hand over Fethullah Gulen, a 77-year-old Pennsylvania-based head of an Islamic movement, to the Turkish justice system. Ankara says Gulen is a cult leader who was behind the coup attempt against Erdogan in 2016 in which 250 people were killed, an accusation Gulen denies.

Washington’s refusal to extradite Gulen has led to tensions between the United States and Turkey, but Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu says the Trump administration is ready to take a new look at the issue.

Cavusoglu said at a conference in Doha last weekend that President Donald Trump had told Erdogan on the sidelines of the recent G20 summit in Argentina that the US government was “working on extraditing Gulen and other people” of the cleric’s Hizmet movement. During a budget debate in Turkey’s parliament in Ankara, Cavusoglu added on Dec 17 that arrests of Gulen followers in New Jersey had started.

A senior White House official told Reuters that Trump did not promise Erdogan that Gulen would be sent to Turkey. “While meeting with President Erdogan at the G20, the president did not commit to extradite Fethullah Gulen,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Turkish government filed an official extradition request for Gulen shortly after the 2016 coup attempt. At one point, Erdogan proposed to exchange Gulen for the US pastor Andrew Brunson, who spent two years in detention in Turkey. Brunson was released in October, but Gulen is still in Pennsylvania.

In November, the Trump administration denied media reports that said Washington was looking at extraditing Gulen in an effort to soften Turkey’s hardline stance against US ally Saudi Arabia in the row over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul.

Ankara says it has sent dozens of boxes of evidence to the United States to make the case against Gulen, who has been a legal resident in America since 1999. Under the US system, the decision of extradition is taken by the judiciary upon the request by a federal prosecutor. But US officials have pointed out that the documents provided by Turkey were unlikely to convince US courts to hand over the cleric

One way for the Trump administration to show Turkey that the United States is warming to the idea of extraditing Gulen would be to officially order the Justice Department to investigate the cleric, but this has not happened so far.

Even if there were political backing from the White House for Turkey’s extradition request, a legal battle in the US courts could take years, especially given Turkey’s human rights record. A crackdown on government critics has seen 150,000 of civil servants being fired for their alleged connection to the Gulen group as well as 50,000 arrests in what government critics say is a witch hunt.

In addition, Turkey’s extradition demand has been overshadowed by an indictment by US grand jury against an ex-business partner of former US national security adviser Michael Flynn and a businessman with ties to Turkish government officials. They have been charged with undisclosed lobbying to get the United States to hand over Gulen.

Flynn’s former partner Bijan Rafiekian was indicted on two criminal counts, including conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government. Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish-Dutch businessman, was charged with allegedly plotting with Turkish officials to trigger the extradition of Gulen and for lying to the FBI about his efforts, among six total counts.

“The defendants sought to discredit and delegitimise the Turkish citizen in the eyes of politicians and the public, and ultimately to secure the Turkish citizen’s extradition,” attorneys for the Eastern District of Virginia wrote, in reference to Gulen.