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Turkey-US relations hit new low as consulate staff and family arrested

Turkey begins interrogation of Istanbul consulate staff member and issues warrant for second staffer and family in row over Gulen and visas
The US consulate in Istanbul (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – The row between Washington or Ankara sank to new levels on Monday, with reports of the arrest of a second staff member at the US consulate in Istanbul and the first interrogation of another staffer accused of working with alleged coup plotters.

Turkish officials on Monday started the interrogation of Metin Topuz, a local staff member of the US consulate in Istanbul formally arrested last week after being taken into custody in late September. His wife and son were also questioned, it was revealed on Monday, despite there being no previous mention of Topuz's by prosecutors.

Topuz is accused of links to the US-based Turkish Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom authorities hold responsible for last July’s failed coup attempt and also for attempting to topple Turkey’s constitutional order.

Gulen’s movement is also accused of orchestrating a series of corruption raids against high-ranking government officials in 2013. Topuz’s arrest is believed to be due to contacts with a pro-Gulenist prosecutor and police department chiefs linked to that investigation.  

There were also reports of a second arrest of a US consulate staffer in local media.

The Istanbul chief prosecutor's office said on Monday that a staff member with the initials NMC, who does not enjoy diplomatic immunity, has been 'invited to testify', the Dogan news agency reported - meaning a warrant had been issued.

NMC's wife and son were also detained in the town of Amasya, the prosecutor's office said.

That statement came after the justice minister, Abdulhamit Gul, denied reports, saying “as far as we are aware there is no second arrest or detention warrant”.

Gul also reportedly refused to grant the US ambassador an audience on Monday. He did not deny the reports.

All these steps came in the wake of a US government decision late on Sunday to stop processing visas for Turkish citizens. 

The Turkish foreign ministry also responded by placing an equivalent visa ban on US citizens looking to visit Turkey.

Mahir Unal, the spokesperson for the ruling AKP party, said Turkey was responding with the utmost rationality.

“The interlocutor for the US embassy is our Washington embassy. Our foreign ministry will make the necessary announcements. Our president will also make an announcement today,” he said.

“We are following developments. We are approaching this with the utmost rationality.”

The trigger for that move was what the US embassy in Turkey called an attempt to try Topuz, who was arrested on 25 September in “the media rather than a court of law” on “baseless” charges.

Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, cancelled a news conference scheduled before his travel to Ukraine. No reason was cited for the cancellation.

The outgoing ambassador, Bass, also had a select meeting with some members of the local Turkish press last week. He was very critical of the government’s actions regarding Topuz’s arrest.

Also implicated in the 2013 stings was Iranian-Turkish businessman Raza Zarrab, who is currently in jail in the United States and being tried for allegedly violating US sanctions on Iran.

The deputy manager of Turkish state lender Halkbank is also under arrest in the United States on the same charges.

Erdogan has often said he is closely following the case involving Turkish citizens. He also said that no Turkish laws were broken since Ankara has imposed no sanctions on trade with Iran.

Pro-government Turkish media have often insinuated US involvement in last July’s coup although authorities have largely refrained from making such accusations.

On 7 March, a translator at the US consulate in Adana was arrested on charges of “membership in a terrorist organisation”.

Turkey has also arrested a US citizen and Presbyterian pastor, Andrew Brunson, last October for alleged membership in the Gulenist network.

The Turkish market and currency reacted adversely to developments late on Sunday and Monday. The Turkish lira dropped steeply in value and was trading at 3.71 to the US dollar.