An Israeli couple, illegally detained for eight days by Turkish authorities on spurious charges of espionage and spying, was released yesterday and returned to Israel following intense back-channel diplomatic efforts to free them. Their detention highlights the extent to which Turkey, under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has descended into a moral abyss with arbitrary arrests and detention being the norm rather than an aberration.
The saga involving the couple – Mordy and Natalie Oknin – began late last week when they were arrested by Turkish police ostensibly for taking photos of Erdogan’s Istanbul palace. Their guide was also arrested. The couple – both employees of the Israeli Egged bus company – claimed that they were unaware of the prohibition on taking photos but irrespective, the subject area, which is a common tourist attraction, had been photographed thousands of times in the past by thousands of tourists.
Cognizant of the minimal nature of the transgression, Turkish police were originally inclined to releasing the two and deporting them from the country. Even that action would have been draconian but what occurred next appeared to be taken from a chapter straight out of Orwell’s 1984. Turkish prosecutors, almost certainly acting on orders from higher political echelons, elected to charge the pair with “political and military espionage,” prompting the notoriously corrupt Turkish judiciary to extend their detention by at least 20 days.
At that stage, Israeli officials still hoped that the issue would be resolved swiftly because no high-level Turkish official publicly addressed the matter. Hopes were quickly dashed, however, when to Israel’s dismay, Turkey’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, called the Israelis spies.
At a news conference Soylu, deemed by some analysts to be second only to Erdogan, stated that, “The couple photographed Erdogan’s home; they focused on the house and marked it.” He added that, “The prosecutor’s office estimates that they committed a crime of military and political espionage, but the court will make the decision in the future.” At that point, the prospects of a swift resolution to the problem appeared remote but in a surprise about-face, the Turks released the detained couple the following day. The couple expressed gratitude to the Israeli government for assistance in securing their release.
Israel had good reason to fear for the well-being of the couple during their Kafkaesque-like detention. They would have had to endure the painfully slow and infamously corrupt Turkish judiciary. Since his ascension, Erdogan has systematically purged Turkey’s judiciary of those deemed too independent or otherwise unfriendly to the regime. This purging process accelerated since the army’s failed coup attempt in 2016. Purged judges were replaced with ardent Erdogan loyalists and sycophants. Any insult to Erdogan or his cronies, for example, can result in years behind bars.
As noted by Foundation for Defense of Democracies analyst Aykan Erdemir, a Turkish man was sentenced to 10 months in prison (later commuted to a $700 fine) for calling Erdogan a “Jew” on social media. Apparently, in Turkey, calling someone a Jew is an insult. In another egregious case, a Turkish doctor was arrested for posting a picture of Erdogan alongside the Lord of the Rings character, Gollum. He was later acquitted but only after his lawyers produced expert testimony attesting to the fact that he was comparing Erdogan to Smeagol, Gollum’s more benign, split personality.
Some Israeli analysts speculated that the abduction of the Israeli tourists by the state represents an effort by Erdogan to score some domestic political points. Alternatively, it may have been an effort by the Turks to use them as hostages to extort concessions from Israel. FDD analysts Aykan Erdemir and Eric S. Edelman refer to this insidious Turkish practice as “hostage diplomacy.”
Ibrahim Kalin, who is a senior advisor to Erdogan said that the incident was essentially a local matter that got out of control. This is difficult to believe in light of the interior ministry’s harsh comments on the incident and the manner in which Turkish prosecutors quickly intervened. In Turkey, nothing moves with alacrity and that is doubly true for the Turkish judiciary. It is more plausible that the Turks seized and detained the tourists with the hope of gaining some political leverage, either domestically or internationally.
Indeed, Turkey is notorious for seizing tourists, academics, religious figures and aid workers on contrived charges for the sole purpose of extortion and gaining leverage. In this regard, the Turkish regime is no different than other autocratic regimes like Iran and North Korea where due process is non-existent. The only difference, however, is that Turkey is a member of NATO. Some of the more notorious Erdogan-sanctioned abductions include the following:
- In October 2016 Turkish authorities arrested and detained an American pastor named Andrew Brunson on contrived terrorism charges. The identities of the witnesses who testified against Brunson were obscured. The Turks were detaining Brunson to pressure the U.S. into extraditing Fethullah Gülen, a Pennsylvania-based political figure whom Erdogan holds responsible for the 2016 coup attempt. Brunson was eventually released but only after President Donald Trump’s robust intervention.
- In November 2016, Turkish police seized two Czech nationals it accused of aiding Kurdish guerillas. The Turks demanded that the Czechs extradite a Kurdish leader residing in Prague in exchange for the Czech nationals. They were held captive for three years until the Turks finally relented. The duo had no terrorist ties and were in transit to Syria to help build a field hospital for Kurds.
- In March 2018 the Turks seized two Greek soldiers, who due to inclement weather, mistakenly strayed across the border at the Evros River. The Turks demanded that Greek authorities hand over eight Turkish soldiers who defected to Greece following the aborted 2016 coup attempt. The Greeks refused as they were cognizant of what waited in store for those suspected of involvement in the coup. The Greek soldiers were finally freed but endured nearly six months of detention.
Turkey under the leadership of the Islamist authoritarian, Erdogan, is a rogue state that holds in contempt the rule of law. It has clearly demonstrated little regard for traditional notions of transparency, fair play and due process. The takeaway for tourists and others who travel to Turkey is this; if you’re foolish enough to go, you run the risk of being thrown in a Turkish dungeon on the whims of its mercurial leader.