The U.S. government’s failure to condemn a consulate worker’s sentencing Thursday speaks volumes. ‘I wouldn’t work for us,’ one Turkey expert said.
(CN) — When the Turkish government jailed a U.S. pastor two years ago, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence lobbied, tweeted and threatened economic retribution to free the Reverend Andrew Brunson.
U.S. consulate worker Metin Topuz received no such consideration on Thursday, as a Turkish court sentenced him to eight years imprisonment on terrorism charges.
The U.S. Embassy in Ankara was the only agency to deliver a statement, albeit somewhat of a muted one that voiced disappointment — but no outrage — over Topuz’s sentence.
“We have seen no credible evidence to support this conviction and hope it will swiftly be overturned,” the embassy tweeted.
For Turkey experts, the Trump administration’s lack of strong condemnation sends a dangerous message for those who would work for U.S. diplomats abroad.
“I wouldn’t work for us,” Steven Cook, a Turkey expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, said flatly, referring to consular staff. “I would know that the United States would not do much to protect me. So, if I was thinking about such a position, I wouldn’t take it. If I had a position, I’d be very, very concerned about it.”
Topuz, a translator and assistant to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, has been jailed since 2017 for alleged ties to Fethullah Gülen, a Pennsylvania-based Muslim leader whose religious movement is considered a terrorist organization by the Turkish government.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blamed Gülen, his former ally, for a 2016 coup attempt and has invoked the aborted putsch to purge thousands of people — journalists, diplomats, police officers and judges — on charges of affiliation with the preacher.
Howard Eissenstat, who served as Amnesty USA’s Turkey specialist for more than a decade, made clear in a phone interview that Topuz’s case was an example of Turkey’s purge trials.
“It’s largely based on guilt by association and sort of scattered non-sequiturs,” said Eissenstat, who is also a professor at St. Lawrence University. “It’s not a case that presents any sort of legitimate events that a normal court of law would have accepted.”
Formally a NATO ally, Turkey finds itself in far different company by incarcerating a U.S. government employee.
“I can’t think of any precedents,” Eissenstat added. “When we talk about consular staff being detained, we’re normally talking about enemies of the United States, not allies.”
Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations said Topuz’s sentencing sends a chilling message to American diplomats and foreign service nationals.
“People don’t realize it, but the U.S. diplomatic corps is relatively small,” he noted. “And that in all the countries around the world, we rely on people like Metin Topuz for everything from basic services in the embassy, but also for their expertise.”
The diplomatic concern is not only theoretical.
Eissenstat, the St. Lawrence professor, reported the chilling effect already has begun.
“I’ve been told informally that U.S. consular staff are very nervous,” Eissenstat said. “U.S. diplomats are of course personally offended by the prosecution of one of their colleagues with whom they have worked for often decades.”
Topuz, who spent more than two decades at the U.S. consulate, helped the Drug Enforcement Agency in joint U.S.-Turkish anti-narcotics efforts.
As with Brunson, Topuz’s case is viewed in the United States as an example of Turkey’s hostage diplomacy, where jailing a U.S. consulate official is seen as a bargaining chip for Erdoğan to carry out a foreign policy objective.
“He’s been caught up in something that he clearly has nothing to do with and is being used once again as a pawn, in the same way that other people, either Americans or people affiliated with Americans, have been used in the Erdoğan and Turkish government’s efforts to force United States to move against Fethullah Gülen and his followers,” said Cook.
Before his verdict, Topuz reportedly described his contact with Turkish police, paramilitary police and customs officials there as part of routine duties working for the U.S. government.
“As part of my duty with the DEA, under the instructions and observation of my superiors, I had thousands of contacts with 309 law enforcement officials to prevent crime,” Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency quoted Topuz as saying.
“I committed no crime and had no relations with (Gülen’s network),” he said.
Gülen, a U.S. green card holder, denies any involvement with the 2016 coup attempt.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has faced heavy criticism for what critics call a subservient posture toward Turkey’s government. In 2017, the White House kept silent when Erdoğan’s security guards beat peaceful protesters on the streets of Washington during the Turkish leader’s first visit to Trump’s Oval Office. Multiple investigations by Senate Democrats are looking into Trump’s real estate earnings in Istanbul and his administration’s efforts to interfere with the prosecution of a multibillion-dollar money-laundering scheme that has been tied to the Turkish president.