Washington is reportedly assessing the possibility of extraditing Fetullah Gulen, one of Turkey's most wanted fugitives. But can the Trump administration really put Gulen on the deportation trial?
Turkey has been demanding the extradition of Fetullah Gulen, the head of the Fetullah Terrorist Organisation (FETO), for over two years. Gulen has been living in self-imposed exile in the US state of Pennsylvania for about 20 years. Much to the surprise of many Turkey observers, the US media network NBC reported on November 15 that the State Department has been examining legal means to extradite him.
The report suggested that the extradition is being discussed to "ease" Turkey’s pressure on the US’ partner Riyadh over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But both Turkey and the US deny any link between the murder investigation and Gulen’s extradition, a source of long-standing dispute between the two NATO allies.
“I think Trump administration has been trying to find a better basis for a relationship with Turkey, as it is becoming more mature and more powerful in the Middle East and its interest is always lined up with the US's interests,” Jacob Shapiro, director of analysis for Geopolitical Futures tells TRT World.
Matthew Bryza, a former US ambassador to Azerbaijan, suggests that what really freed up a lot of blocked issues between Turkey and the US was Ankara’s decision to release the Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was arrested in 2016 on terrorism charges.
“What is improving in the US-Turkey relationships I think is the relationship between the governments, and that’s not because of the Khashoggi case at all,” Bryza tells TRT World.
Turkey has been formally seeking the extradition of Gulen ever since FETO members attempted a military coup in July 2016, which claimed the lives of 249 people and injured more than 2,000 others. On Washington's request, Turkey’s Justice Ministry handed over 80 boxes of evidence to US prosecutors and continue to share new findings from time to time.
The case didn’t make much progress, as the US authorities rejected expelling Gulen, saying the evidence provided by Turkey wasn't strong enough for the US Justice Department to process his expulsion.
The Gulen case continued to be a source of diplomatic tension between the two governments in the following years.
Shapiro, the head of Geopolitical Futures, says the Trump administration is likely to face resistance from some quarters of the White House even though the president seems to be willing to mend ties with Turkey.
In late September, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the US to extradite Gulen again and proposed a swap deal. A Turkish court ruling to release the pastor came a month after. On November 6, the US announced that it was offering a total of $12 million for information leading to the identification or location of three senior members of the PKK, an outlawed militant group which has led a terror campaign against Turkey for four decades. The move was widely perceived as the US’ attempt to warm up to Ankara.
Bryza says, if the extradition happens, it would be through an investigation by the US Department of Justice.
“A federal prosecutor will bring the case to a judge and the judge has to be convinced that this person needs to be extradited,” Bryza says. “The president cannot decide to extradite Gulen. Trump has no impact on the judge – except presenting new information.”
However, he adds, President Trump can order the Justice Department to begin investigating whether Gulen needs to extradited.
“The president can order an investigation of the Gulen network, can order an investigation on Gulen himself; the president can order an investigation to his possible extradition,” he explains.
In July, a US official in Turkey said that cooperation between Turkish and US law enforcement agencies over Gulen had improved in recent months as Turkey said new evidence would be presented to the US prosecutors.
But Shapiro thinks the Gulen case will continue to be on the table for a longer time.
“Turkey and the US have other issues on the table,” he says. “Delaying has been a political flashpoint, it's not the main affair.”
For Bryza, it would be surprising and disappointing if the US side decides to proceed with the extradition for political reasons – as claimed in the recent report.
“The investigation on the extradition should be regardless of politics,” he says. “It should be justice reasons, not political reasons.”