By Everett Price,
One year ago today, Turkish authorities detained Hamza Uluçay, a 36-year veteran Turkish employee of the U.S. Consulate in the southern city of Adana. After decades of service to the United States, he spent the last year behind bars on unsubstantiated terrorism charges.
Authorities initially questioned Uluçay last February about his communications with local Kurdish contacts. Such communication with local contacts, including peaceful Kurdish groups, would have been a routine part of the U.S consulate’s work. Yet within hours of his initial detention, the Turkish press claimed that Uluçay was suspected of inciting public support for the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that has been engaged in a more than three-decade armed conflict with the Turkish state.
After more than a week in custody, Uluçay was released for lack of sufficient evidence only to be re-detained hours later due to a prosecutor’s objections. This time Uluçay was formally arrested and faced graver charges. He stood accused of “membership in a terrorist organization,” a reference purportedly to the PKK and the Gulen movement, the religious and social movement the Turkish government accuses of orchestrating the failed coup in July 2016.
Little is known about the prosecution’s evidence against Uluçay. According to Turkish press, authorities seized 21 U.S. dollar bills from Uluçay’s home. As seen in the case of imprisoned U.S. citizen and NASA scientist Serkan Golge, Turkish prosecutors regularly cite one dollar bills as “evidence” of a defendant’s involvement with the Gulen movement.
The government claims that the founder of the movement and alleged coup mastermind, Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, gave blessed dollar bills to his followers, particularly those with serial numbers beginning with “F” for “Fethullah.” Uluçay’s experience is another sobering reminder of the state of the rule of law in Turkey, where a single dollar bill can stand as “evidence” of terrorist activity.
Authorities also seized on Uluçay’s possession of books about Kurdish politics and terrorism: typical possessions for a political specialist whose job is to help American diplomats understand conditions in southeast Turkey.
U.S. embassies and consulates around the world hire local staff like Uluçay to facilitate engagement with local contacts and to advise on political and cultural dynamics in the host country. Since U.S. diplomats rotate among overseas posts every few years, locally employed staff (or LES, as they are known) often serve as important focal points of continuity and institutional memory in the work of a diplomatic mission. In Uluçay’s case, he offered successive rotations of American diplomats in Adana decades’ worth of established relationships and experience working with local groups and individuals.
As LES directly support U.S. diplomatic representation in a country, it is rare for host nation authorities to openly interfere with their work, least of all in countries with friendly relations with the United States. For this reason—and in the absence of credible evidence to support the serious allegations against him—the detention of Uluçay last February represented a significant diplomatic incident.
The affront was compounded seven months later when Turkish authorities detained another longtime Turkish employee of a U.S. consulate, this time in Istanbul. Metin Topuz was taken into custody on September 25 and shortly thereafter charged with “membership in a terrorist organization,” “gathering state secrets for espionage,” and “attempting to overthrow [the Government, Turkish National Assembly, and the Constitutional Order].”
Topuz had spent more than 20 years working for the U.S. consulate where he helped officers of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration liaise with Turkish counterparts. According to Turkish press reports, his official communications had brought him into contact with suspected Gulen-affiliated officers in the Turkish security services. Topuz, therefore, was accused of belonging to the so-called “Fethullah Terrorist Organization,” or “FETO.”
U.S. officials tried in vain to obtain a credible justification from Turkish authorities for Topuz’s arrest only to see them target a second employee of the Istanbul Consulate General for arrest, Mete Canturk. In response to these developments, on October 8 the United States announced the indefinite suspension of non-immigrant visa services in Turkey. Then-U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass announced the decision in a videotaped statement, commenting, “Despite our best efforts to learn the reasons for [Topuz’s] arrest, we have been unable to determine why it occurred or what, if any, evidence exists against the employee.”
“This arrest,” he continued, “has raised questions about whether the goal of some officials is to disrupt the long-standing cooperation between Turkey and the United States.”
The State Department resumed limited visa services in Turkey on November 6 and restored full services on December 28 after receiving assurances from Turkish authorities that no additional local employees were under investigation, that local staff will not be detained for performing their official duties, and that Turkish officials would provide the United States advanced warning of any future arrest. Nevertheless, both Uluçay and Topuz remain in custody to this day.
In addition, on January 31, 2018 authorities placed Canturk, the other LES who was sought by authorities in October, under house arrest allegedly for links to the Gulen movement. Although formal charges have yet to be filed, he has been unable to return to work.
The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing on November 15 to examine the deterioration of Turkey’s rule of law and the ongoing detention of Uluçay, Topuz, and several U.S. citizens on coup-related charges. In his testimony before the Commission, State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Turkey Jonathan R. Cohen stated, “It appears to us that Mr. Uluçay and Mr. Topuz were arrested for maintaining legitimate contacts with Turkish government and local officials and others in the context of their official duties on behalf of the U.S. government.”
Helsinki Commissioners have raised their cases on several occasions and will continue to do so until they are released. In May, the Helsinki Commission’s bicameral, bipartisan leadership led a letter with the bipartisan House co-chairs of the Lantos Human Rights Commission urging President Trump to raise Uluçay’s case directly with President Erdogan during the latter’s official visit to Washington that month. Later in the year, ten Commissioners wrote to Turkish President Erdogan calling on him to help swiftly resolve Uluçay and Topuz’s cases, among others.
While chairing the Commission’s November hearing, Senate Commissioner Thom Tillis said, “The harassment and detention of our consulate staff has…overstepped the bounds of diplomatic conduct among partners.”
Sen. Tillis clearly expressed that the United States should “not accept anything short of true and timely justice for our detained consulate staff and our citizens behind bars.” One year since his detention, justice for Hamza Uluçay—like others—remains a distant prospect.