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Israel releases Turkish tourist accused of links to Iran

Orhan Buyruk's three-week detention had sparked uproar in Turkish media, threatening to undermine countries' improving diplomatic ties
A photo posted on Facebook by Buyruk showing him posing in front of Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque in 2012 (Facebook/Orhan Buyruk)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – A Turkish national arrested three weeks ago at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport for alleged “connections to Iran” was released on Wednesday, defusing a crisis that threatened to derail improving relations between Turkey and Israel.

Orhan Buyruk was taken into custody on 28 September after being questioned for hours by the Israeli security service Shin Bet, with the case prompting uproar in the Turkish media and threatening a new crisis in diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Twitter that Buyruk had been released.

Translation: Orhan Buyruk who has been held in detention by Israel since 28 September, was released a short while ago. Commiserations to him and his family.

Buyruk subsequently tweeted to thank those who had supported him while he was detained.

Translation: Alhamdulillah, I have been released after 21 days. I thanks everyone who supported me during this time.

Speaking on his arrival at Istanbul's Sabiha Gokcen airport he told reporters: “I bring you greetings from our Palestinian brothers in Israeli prisons first of all. I was detained at the airport and wasn’t given the slightest reason for it. I endured a very difficult 21 days. They have no evidence. They see any visitor to their country as an agent. I was detained on that basis.”

Buyruk had travelled to Israel intending to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem as a tourist when he was arrested. Turkish media reports said he had no criminal record and was not linked to any recognised terrorist groups, prompting accusations that Israel was using bullying tactics.

'False accusation'

Buyruk’s lawyer, Ahmet Akif Demir, had earlier released a statement saying that his client was being accused of being an Iranian agent who was passing on information about Israel to an Iranian citizen.

“This is a completely false accusation and has no basis in fact. The prosecutor making this accusation has no evidence either,” Demir said.

Demir also said this was not Buyruk’s first visit to Al-Aqsa, which is a pilgrimage site for Muslims. He said his client’s previous visit had been trouble free.

Buyruk had posted photos publicly on Facebook showing his previous visits to Jerusalem including images of him shaking hands with Raed Salah, the Palestinian leader of the northern wing of the Islamic Movement in Israel.

Saleh was earlier this year sentenced to nine months in prison after being convicted of fomenting riots at the Al-Aqsa mosque.

Buyruk runs a travel agency in Turkey. Demir claimed his client was facing psychological pressure in Israeli custody. 

Anger at Buyruk’s arrest had led a group to protest in front of the Israeli consulate on Friday. The protest passed without incident.

On Monday, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus had said the government was closely following the case and seeking to secure Buyruk’s release.

A court hearing was scheduled for 20 October but Buyruk was released without charge before the hearing.

He was deported to Turkey after his release, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

It is only recently that Turkish-Israeli ties have started improving after a complete breakdown in 2010.

Turkish officials were cautious not to verbally attack Israel even as they demanded answers about the reason behind Buyruk’s arrest.

According to Haaretz, Turkish diplomats put the arrest down to a “misunderstanding".  

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz became the first Israeli minister to visit Turkey in six years when he attended the World Energy Congress in Istanbul earlier this month.

Deteriorating ties between Turkey and Israel completely broke down after an Israeli armed raid on the Turkish-led Mavi Marmara aid flotilla seeking to break the blockade on Gaza resulted in the deaths of 10 Turkish citizens.

Turkey had demanded an apology, compensation for Mavi Marmara victims and the lifting of the Gaza blockade before considering any restoration of ties.

Recent negotiations saw the two sides reach a compromise on these issues and a decision was made to restore ties.

The next step is the appointment of ambassadors, which is imminent according to recent remarks made by the spokesman of the Turkish presidency. The two countries are currently represented by charge de affaires, a lower-ranking diplomat who usually stands in for an absent more senior official.