U.S. halts Turkish visas after arrest of employee

Posted: October 9, 2017 at 3:50 a.m.
Updated: October 9, 2017 at 3:50 a.m.

ISTANBUL -- The U.S. said Sunday that it was suspending nonimmigrant visa services at its diplomatic facilities in Turkey, after the arrest of a consulate employee.

The U.S. Embassy in the Turkish capital of Ankara tweeted a statement from the U.S. Mission to Turkey saying that recent events have forced it to "reassess the commitment of the Government of Turkey to the security of U.S. Mission facilities and personnel."

The Turkish Embassy in Washington responded with a similar statement on Twitter late Sunday and said it would "reassess the commitment of the Government of the United States to the security of Turkish mission facilities and personnel." It said the measures would apply to e-Visas, visas issued at borders and visas in passports.

Last week, Turkish authorities arrested a U.S. Consulate employee of Turkish nationality, accusing him of having links to the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen who the Turkish government blames for last summer's failed coup. Gulen denies involvement.

Metin Topuz is accused of espionage and "attempting to overthrow the Turkish government and constitution." Turkey's official Anadolu news agency reported last week that he allegedly communicated with former police chiefs in a 2013 corruption probe, 121 people involved in the attempted coup and hundreds of others using an encrypted mobile messaging application.

The U.S. said Thursday that the government was "deeply disturbed" by the arrest, terming charges against Topuz "wholly without merit," and by leaks from Turkish government sources seemingly aimed at "trying the employee in the media rather than a court of law." Turkey responded by saying the arrested Turkish citizen wasn't part of the U.S. Consulate's staff but was a "local employee."

The statement said the suspension of nonimmigrant visa services was "effective immediately" to minimize visitor numbers to the U.S. Embassy and Consulate for now. The suspended services will affect business, tourism, medical treatment, student, exchange visitor, crew member, media and journalist, treaty trader, diplomatic and official visas.

Meanwhile, the Istanbul prosecutor's office charged Amnesty International's Turkey chief and 10 others, alleging ties to and cooperation with terror groups in an indictment completed Sunday, according to the country's official news agency.

The Anadolu news agency said officials concluded an investigation into the 11 human-rights activists, who are now awaiting trial. The 17-page indictment was prepared by the prosecutor's office's terror-crimes branch.

Police detained 10 human-rights activists during a workshop on digital security at a hotel near Istanbul in July. Eight people, including Amnesty International's director in Turkey Idil Eser, German Peter Steudtner and Swede Ali Gharavi, were arrested. Two others were detained but released pending trial.

They are accused of aiding armed terror organizations in alleged communications with suspects linked to Kurdish and left-wing militants as well as the movement led by Gulen.

The indictment includes a "secret witness" who claimed the activists were engaged in illegal activities during the workshop, according to Anadolu.

The case of Amnesty International chairman Taner Kilic, a lawyer imprisoned in June after his arrest in the western province of Izmir, has also been added on to the indictment. He was accused of using an encrypted mobile messaging application, allegedly used by Gulen's network.

The arrest of Steudtner and other Germans has been a cause of serious friction between Berlin and Ankara, and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said the announcement of charges was a matter of "great concern."

He called the accusations against Steudtner "absolutely incomprehensible" and the threat of 15 years in prison for him "unacceptable," saying that his office had immediately contacted the Turkish government.

"We continue to do everything we can to bring the imprisoned German citizens, including Peter Steudtner, back to Germany," Gabriel said in a statement.

U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for over 20 years, has also been behind bars for a year over allegations of links to Gulen. Last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the U.S. was pressing Turkey to return a "cleric" while refusing to hand over another "cleric."

More than 50,000 people have been arrested and 110,000 have been fired from government jobs as part of a state of emergency declared after the failed coup.

Information for this article was contributed by Tugce Ozsoy of Bloomberg News and by staff members of The Associated Press.

A Section on 10/09/2017