Turkish court jails US consul staffer for aiding 'terror group'

by Fulya OZERKAN
The court sentenced Metin Topuz to almost nine years in prison for allegedly aiding an armed terror group

A local US consulate employee was sentenced to nearly nine years in prison in Turkey Thursday for "aiding an armed terror group" that Ankara blames for a failed 2016 coup, in a decision denounced by its NATO ally Washington.

Metin Topuz, who worked as a liaison officer for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Istanbul, was arrested in 2017 and was jailed Thursday for eight years and nine months, the official Anadolu news agency reported.

He was accused of making contact with police and a prosecutor suspected of ties to US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara says masterminded the attempted coup in 2016. Gulen rejects the accusations.

Topuz, a Turkish citizen, denied the allegations in court, the private DHA news agency reported.

A lawyer for Topuz, contacted by AFP, confirmed the sentence and said a court of appeals is due to decide whether to uphold it.

In previous hearings, Topuz told the judge that his contacts with senior police officials or prosecutors of the time were entirely "part of my work as a translator and assistant liaison officer at the DEA."

The Istanbul court acquitted Topuz on political and military espionage charges.

The US embassy, whose staff regularly attended the hearings in support of Topuz and his family, has often said there is no credible evidence against him.

US consul general Daria Darnel and acting public affairs officer Stephanie Kuck were present at Thursday's session.

"U.S. officials observed every hearing in the trial of Metin Topuz in Istanbul, and we are deeply disappointed in today's decision," the US embassy said on Twitter.

"We have seen no credible evidence to support this conviction and hope it will swiftly be overturned."

- 'New era'-

Topuz's initial arrest in 2017 triggered a diplomatic crisis with both Turkey and the US suspending visa services for some time.

The latest verdict is likely to cause new strains in bilateral ties as the two NATO allies are mending fences following disagreements over Syria, Ankara's purchase of Russian S-400 defence systems, and a US refusal to extradite Gulen.

On the positive side, Turkish military planes carried medical supplies to Washington to help the US fight the coronavirus.

In an interview with state TRT broadcaster this week, Erdogan praised cooperation with the US in Libya, saying Ankara and Washington were edging closer to a "new era" in ties.

On Twitter, the US embassy said the allegations made about Topuz's official duties "misrepresent both the scope and nature of the important work undertaken by our local staff on behalf of the U.S. government and in the promotion of our bilateral relationship."

Since the attempted overthrow of Erdogan, tens of thousands of people have been charged with suspected ties to Gulen and more than 100,000 people have been sacked or suspended from public sector jobs.

Ankara has been criticised by its Western allies and human rights activists over the crackdown they say has undermined democracy. Turkish officials say the raids are needed to clear Gulen's influence from state institutions.

The court sentenced Metin Topuz to almost nine years in prison for allegedly aiding an armed terror group