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US consulate staffer arrested in Istanbul over links to Fethullah Gulen

In this file picture, a US flag flies in front of the building of the US Consulate General in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by AP)

Turkish authorities have arrested a US Consulate General staffer in the country’s largest city of Istanbul on charges of contacts with members of a movement led by US-based opposition cleric, Fethullah Gulen, whom the Ankara government accuses of masterminding last July’s coup attempt.

The employee, identified with initials M.T., was remanded in custody by an Istanbul court late on Wednesday.

Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency reported that the man worked as a contact officer at the Consulate General, and made contacts with former police chiefs Yakup Saygilı, Nazmi Ardiç, Mahir Çakallı and Mehmet Akif Üner, all linked to Gulen’s movement.

The report added that M.T. had phone calls with ex-prosecutor Zekeriya Öz, who is believed to be in Europe after he fled Turkey, on a regular basis. Öz faces life sentence for attempting to overthrow the government forcefully and forming a criminal organization.

Meanwhile, the US Embassy in Ankara said it was “deeply disturbed” by the arrest of the consulate staffer, claiming that the charges against him were “baseless.”

“The United States government is deeply disturbed by the arrest of a locally-employed staff member. We believe these allegations to be wholly without merit,” the diplomatic mission said in a statement on Thursday.

The embassy also condemned leaks in the local press, which it said came “from Turkish government sources seemingly aimed at trying the employee in the media rather than a court of law.”

“Baseless, anonymous allegations against our employees undermine and devalue this longstanding relationship” between Washington and Ankara, the statement said.

The US embassy added that the United States would “continue to engage” with Turkey to ensure its employees and US citizens are granted “due legal process.”

During the July 15, 2016 botched putsch, a faction of the Turkish military declared that it had seized control of the country and the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was no more in charge. The attempt was, however, suppressed a few hours later.

Ankara has since accused Gulen of having orchestrated the coup. The opposition figure is also accused of being behind a long-running campaign to topple the government via infiltrating the country’s institutions, particularly the army, police and the judiciary. 

Additionally, the Ankara government has outlawed Gulen’s movement, branding it as the Fethullah Terrorist Organization (FETO). 

Gulen has denounced the “despicable putsch” and reiterated that he had no role in it.

“Accusations against me related to the coup attempt are baseless and politically-motivated slanders,” he said soon after the botched coup.

This photo taken on July 18, 2016, shows Turkish cleric and opposition figure, Fethullah Gulen, at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, the United States. (Photo by AFP)

The 76-year-old cleric has also called on Ankara to end its “witch hunt” of his followers, a move he says is aimed at “weeding out anyone it deems disloyal to President Erdogan and his regime.”

Turkey has frequently called on the US to extradite Gulen, but the demands have not been taken heed of.

Turkey, which remains in a state of emergency since the coup, has been engaged in suppressing the media and opposition groups suspected of having played a role in the failed coup.

Tens of thousands of people have been arrested in Turkey on suspicion of having links to Gulen and the failed coup. More than 110,000 others, including military staff, civil servants and journalists, have been sacked or suspended from work over the same accusations.

The international community and rights groups have been highly critical of the Turkish president over the massive dismissals and the crackdown.

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