Turkish court issues arrest warrant for cleric now in U.S.

Turkish Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen is pictured at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, March 15, 2014
Turkish Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen is pictured at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, March 15, 2014 AP

A Turkish criminal court issued an arrest warrant Friday for Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish religious scholar who lives in self-exile in Pennsylvania and has become public enemy number one of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s increasingly autocratic president.

The charges paralleled Erdogan’s accusations against his former ally. The court said Gulen had “established an illegal criminal organization with a hierarchical structure that is separate from the state’s own structure” in order to “seize influential posts that govern Turkey’s social, economic, military and administrative mechanisms.”

The warrant could lead to a request for extradition, but the case it grows out of has become so politicized –with Erdogan denouncing those brought in for questioning as traitors – as to give any independent judge pause before agreeing. In Washington, the State Department declined to comment on the case and possible extradition.

Gulen, who’s 73 and in ill health, lives in Saylorsburg, a small town in the Pocono Mountains. He holds no elected office but wields outsize influence in Turkey through his Hizmet movement, which runs newspapers, television networks and college exam prep schools and is influential in the business community.

The case began Sunday, when the state prosecutor ordered the arrests of 31 people, including the editor in chief of Zaman, Turkey’s biggest daily newspaper, and the general manager of the Samanyolu broadcasting group, as well as policemen, a prosecutor, screenwriters and a newspaper columnist. Zaman and Samanyolu are affiliated with Gulen’s movement.

According to the pro-government daily newspaper Sabah, Gulen denounced a group in 2009 that had criticized him, alleging they were political extremists. After his statement, the soap opera “United Turkey,” carried by Samanyolu, ran a segment about the group, whose leader was subsequently arrested, tried and jailed.

Gulen reputedly caused the segment to be aired and then used his influence with the police and judiciary to improperly arrest and try the defendants. Left unsaid is that Erdogan, at the time the prime minister, could have used his own influence if he’d wanted to suppress the case.

The two men, both of whom favor more Islamic influence in the secular state, broke about a year ago, after an enormous corruption scandal erupted that led straight to Erdogan’s office. The then-prime minister blamed Gulen and his influence over the judiciary and police for a wiretap of his phones and release of their content to the public. Erdogan charged it was an attempt to topple him.

In the meantime, Erdogan has fired prosecutors, arrested police and shaken up the entire judiciary. Although four of his ministers were forced to resign in the scandal, it now appears there will be no prosecutions.

In Friday’s action, the Istanbul court set free Ekrem Dumanli, the editor in chief of Zaman, but charged Samanyolu group Chairman Hidayet Karaca with “managing a terrorist organization,” according to the semiofficial Anadolu news agency. Three Turkish policemen were charged with membership in that supposed organization.

Dumanli’s arrest had caused an international furor as a violation of freedom of speech, and his release may ease some of the pressure on the government, especially from abroad.

But the government also is under pressure from within. Before the four men were charged and taken to Silivri prison, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said all the suspects should be released pending trial. Noting the amount of time that had elapsed since the TV soap opera and the columns run in Zaman, he said Dumanli had denied tampering with the content of the newspaper and Karaca the program.

Gulenists could claim a small victory for their cause with Dumanli’s release, but it did little to improve the abysmal media scene in Turkey, where most of the media are controlled or heavily influenced by the government and the few voices of dissent often push a different political slant rather than provide objective coverage.

Zaman and Gulen’s other institutions also can’t claim to be champions of press freedom, having publicly supported the prosecution of some of Turkey’s most respected investigative journalists who were highly critical of the movement’s influence on the judiciary and police.