Istanbul:A US consulate staffer went on trial in a Turkish court on Tuesday accused of spying and attempting to overthrow the government in a case that fuelled tensions between the United States and its NATO ally.
Metin Topuz, a Turkish citizen and long-time liaison with the US Drug Enforcement Administration, was arrested in 2017 accused of ties to US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara says ordered a failed 2016 coup.
Turkish police escorted Topuz weeping into the Caglayan courthouse in Istanbul, where he faces life in jail if found guilty, an AFP reporter said.
Topuz rejected the indictment that charges he was in contact with police officers and a former prosecutor accused of involvement in the Gulen movement.
“During my 25 year service at DEA, I met a lot of police personnel and public officials and exchanged business cards with them,” Topuz told the court. “I have no duty other than to serve as a translator between the interlocutors.
“I haven’t betrayed my homeland as is claimed… The accusations are humiliating for me and my family. I am innocent.”
The US charge d’affaires from the Ankara embassy and the Istanbul consul general were also in court for the first set of hearings, which is expected to last three days.
The trial opened as relations between the United States and Turkey have worsened with disagreements over Syria’s war, Turkey’s purchase of Russian missiles and the US refusal to extradite Gulen.
The US embassy has called the accusations “wholly without merit”.
US officials say freeing “unjustly detained” Turkish nationals on their staff is a priority, as is 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 militants. He was released for time already served.
– Diplomatic crisis –
In the indictment, Topuz is accused of engaging in espionage activities as well as arranging arms trafficking through exchanges on the Whatsapp messaging service.
Topuz’s 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 detained 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 detained 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 impact its sale of US-made F-35 fighter jets to Turkey and trigger more sanctions.
Turkey’s push to buy the 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 PKK Kurdish militants fighting an insurgency against the Turkish state.