ISTANBUL — The news that Turkey will officially request that the United States extradite Turkish Islamic scholar Fetullah Gulen is threatening to strain U.S.-Turkish relations. Ankara insists Gulen is behind a conspiracy to overthrow the government. But analysts warn that Ankara may find it difficult legally to secure his extradition.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday that he would ask Washington to extradite Gulen. Erdogan has repeatedly accused the cleric and his followers of seeking to overthrow the government.
But Riza Turmen, a former European Court of Human Rights judge who is now a parliamentary deputy for Turkey's opposition Republican People’s Party, said that while an extradition agreement has been in force since 1981, it would be difficult to secure Gulen's extradition.
"There is an obligation to effect extradition if conditions are fulfilled, but one condition for such extradition: the person who is requested should be charged with an offense or should be convicted of an offense. Then another condition: the offense for which extradition is requested should be punishable under the laws of both countries. Now, whether these conditions are fulfilled [is] very doubtful. I don’t think there is any charge or any conviction against Mr. Gulen. So I can't really see how there is legal basis for such a request of extradition," said Turmen.
But local media reports claimed Ankara prosecutors have launched an investigation into Gulen. Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Omer Celik said Wednesday that prosecutors were investigating Gulen for crimes against the constitution. The minister went on to say the investigation was about Turkey's survival. The ruling AK Party accuses followers of Gulen inside the police and judiciary of unjustifiably launching graft investigations last December against family members of leading ministers, with the aim of overthrowing the government. Gulen denies the allegations.
Kadri Gursel, diplomatic columnist for the Milliyet newspaper, said despite the severity of the charges, it would be difficult for the U.S. to secure Gulen's return under the extradition agreement, because the agreement forbid extraditing someone whose conviction for alleged criminal offenses was deemed politically motivated.
"I think this clause of the agreement blocks the way of any extradition. Because the whole discourse against Gulen [is] built on political charges," said Gursel.
Washington has indicated it is skeptical about the allegations against Gulen and criticized Ankara for interfering in probes into alleged government graft. But the Turkish prime minister insists his government is threatened by a parallel state led by Gulen.
Such claims helped Erdogan consolidate his electoral base in last month's local elections, said Semih Idiz, a diplomatic columnist for Turkey's Taraf newspaper. With presidential elections looming in August, Idiz said, Erdogan was playing politics with the Gulen extradition.
"He is maintaining this momentum he had before the local elections, where he was hitting at this parallel structure, and it obviously worked for him and he needs to maintain momentum over the next few weeks and months as he decides what [he] has to do vis-a-vis the presidency. I think he is just playing politics here. And U.S.-bashing, America-bashing, always brings popularity in this country. There is this problem of anti-Westernism in Turkey, and when America is involved, that peaks," said Idiz.
Analysts said Washington was unlikely to extradite Gulen, even if it would take considerable time, possibly years, to do so. But diplomatic columnist Gursel predicted that even if the extradition request was turned down, bilateral relations were unlikely to be seriously damaged.
"What will happen if the United States reject this demand, will there be any sanctions -- I don’t think so. U.S.-Turkish relations are multi-dimensional; there are many aspects of it. And I think Erdogan’s government and [he] himself value U.S.-Turkish relations," said Gursel.
But for now Erdogan continues to keep pressure on both Gulen and Washington, noting that Turkish courts have on several occasions honored U.S. extradition requests. Observers say with presidential elections looming, Ankara's pressure on Washington, and its campaign against Gulen and his followers, are likely to continue.