The trial of a Turkish employee of the US consulate in Istanbul has started after he was charged with espionage and attempting to overthrow the Turkish government in one of several cases heightening tensions between the United States and its NATO ally.
Metin Topuz, a Turkish citizen and liaison with the US Drug Enforcement Administration, was arrested in 2017 and has been accused of having ties with US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara says ordered a failed 2016 coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
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The first hearing of Topuz’s trial in Caglayan court in Istanbul is expected to last three days. He faces life in prison if found guilty of spying and plotting to overthrow the government.
The US embassy has called the accusations “wholly without merit”.
US officials said freeing “unjustly detained” Turkish nationals on their staff was a priority, as was the case of NASA scientist Serkan Golge, a dual US-Turkish national jailed on “terror charges”.
Another Istanbul local consulate staffer, Mete Canturk, is under house arrest and facing similar charges to Topuz.
A judge in January convicted Hamza Ulucay, a former local employee of the US consulate in Adana, southern Turkey, of helping outlawed Kurdish fighters. He was released taking into account the time already served in jail.
Topuz was formally charged in January. He is accused of contact with police officers and a former prosecutor suspected of links to the Gulen movement, according to Anadolu state news agency.
His initial arrest in 2017 triggered a diplomatic crisis with both Turkey and the US suspending visa services until they stepped back.
“This has been a big deal in the Turkish-US relations, but Americans have reversed course from an earlier decision to impose visa bans and have decided to pursue a quiet diplomacy,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Since the failed 2016 coup against Erdogan, tens of thousands of people have been arrested over suspected links to Gulen and more than 100,000 people have been sacked or suspended from public sector jobs.
Gulen denies the coup accusations.
Ankara has been criticised by its Western allies and human rights activists over the crackdown they say has undermined democracy. But Turkish officials say the raids are needed to clear Gulen’s influence from state institutions.
US relations with Turkey plummeted to a low last year over jailed US pastor Andrew Brunson, triggering tit-for-tat sanctions that hit the local lira currency.
Brunson was released in October last year and relations improved.
But Erdogan’s decision to buy S-400 missile systems from Russia has provoked warnings from Washington that the deal may affect its sale of US-made F-35 fighter jets to Turkey and trigger more sanctions.
Turkey’s push to buy S-400 missile systems has raised questions among NATO allies over alliance equipment as well as concerns over the relationship between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ties were already strained over US support of Kurdish forces in Syria, which Ankara brands as a “terrorist group” tied to the PKK, which is fighting against the Turkish state.