Turkey’s arrests of an American pastor and other Western citizens have thrust its troubled judicial system to the forefront of ties with allies, reinforcing suspicions that the Turkish government is using detainees as diplomatic leverage.
Turkey scoffs at the idea that it treats detained foreigners as foreign policy pawns, and points the finger at the U.S. for cases against Turks in American courts. Turkey’s top appeals court judge weighed in this week, saying only “independent” courts can free pastor Andrew Brunson.
The reality is more complex in a nation where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tightened his grip on the state, including a judiciary purged of thousands of judges and prosecutors after an attempted coup in 2016. Constitutional changes have since expanded Erdogan’s control of judicial appointments, undermining Turkey’s avowals that it wants to mold impartial courts.
There is no evidence that jailed foreigners in Turkey were arrested to be used as “hostages,” and Erdogan could genuinely believe they were acting on behalf of foreign governments against Turkey, said Nicholas Danforth, an analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
“In taking and holding prisoners to combat the West’s presumed hostility, Ankara ends up creating the kind of hostility it imagines,” Danforth wrote in a blog post last week.
Recent Turkish court rulings seemed to align with diplomatic outreach to Europe. Two Greek soldiers held for months were freed; Taner Kilic, an Amnesty International representative, was released; and a judge lifted a travel ban on a German of Turkish descent accused of terror offenses.
Conversely, the courts ruled against freeing Brunson, who is accused of links to Kurdish rebels and the 2016 coup plotters, after U.S. economic penalties deepened the Turkish currency’s slide.
A coincidence? Some analysts don’t think so.
“As the crisis with the U.S. heated up and as the economic crisis heated up, Erdogan saw a need to speed up the process of normalization with Europe,” said Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor of Middle East history in Canton, New York.
Eissenstat, also a fellow at the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy, speculated that President Donald Trump’s focus on freeing Brunson had backfired, encouraging Turkish officials to think: “‘This guy’s really valuable and we can get a lot for him.'”
For Turkey, “a lot” would be the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who lives in Pennsylvania and denies Turkish allegations that he engineered the coup attempt, which killed nearly 300 people.
Turkey has also criticized the case against Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an official at Turkey’s state-controlled Halkbank who was jailed in the U.S. for helping Iran avoid American sanctions.
Last year, Erdogan floated a possible trade in which the U.S. sends Gulen to Turkey in exchange for the release of Brunson, now under house arrest in the city of Izmir. However, comments on Monday by Ismail Rustu Cirit, the Turkish judge, reflected an official view that Turkey’s sovereignty in the matter is paramount.
“The only and absolute power that can rule on the arrest of a foreign citizen in Izmir and decisions about his trial are the independent and impartial courts,” Cirit said.
The European Union has urged Turkey to guarantee the impartiality of its courts, a key requirement in an EU candidacy bid that stalled years ago.
Judicial reforms more than a decade ago, in the early years of Erdogan’s rule, reduced the power of the military and moved Turkey closer to European standards. But backsliding followed, amid increasing accusations that the ruling party was using the courts to muzzle opponents.
In another twist, internal conflict erupted at the end of 2013 when prosecutors launched an investigation of alleged corruption at the top of the government, a move described by Erdogan’s camp as a power grab by Gulen supporters.
Detainees remain an irritant between Germany and Turkey, which freed Die Welt journalist Deniz Yucel and activist Peter Steudtner. But Turkey still holds a number of Germans for what Berlin considers political reasons.
Turkey, meanwhile, has bemoaned a Greek court’s decision to grant asylum to some servicemen who fled to Greece a day after Turkey’s coup attempt. In a reverse scenario, Turkey would never “shelter” coup plotters acting against Greece, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.
Turkey doesn’t have “very much” to show for what may be opportunistic attempts to use detainees as leverage with other countries, according to Eissenstat.
He said there could be a parallel with similar cases in Iran or the former Soviet Union, in which “local officials would sometimes make decisions and then the central government would decide, ‘OK, how does this fit into a larger policy?'”