FILE - A view of an entrance of the U.S. Consulate in Adana, Turkey, Sept. 6, 2013.
FILE - A view of an entrance of the U.S. Consulate in Adana, Turkey, Sept. 6, 2013.

ISTANBUL - A Turkish court on Wednesday convicted a translator for the U.S. Consulate in Adana of a terrorism charge but then ordered him released.

Turkey's state-owned Anadolu news agency said the court in Mardin province convicted Hamza Ulucay of "knowingly and willingly aiding an armed terror organization" without membership in the group. Ulucay denied those allegations and demanded his acquittal.

The court sentenced him to 4½ years in prison but released him with credit for the time he was in detention, which was nearly two years, Anadolu said. The court also imposed a travel ban on him.  
 
Charge d'Affaires Jeffrey M. Hovenier, the top American diplomat in Ankara, attended Wednesday's court hearing along with other U.S. officials. 

Alleged ties to PKK 
 
Ulucay was detained Feb. 23, 2017, for alleged links to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a militant organization that has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy for decades.  

The Turkish government and its Western allies, including the U.S., consider the PKK a terrorist organization.  

Police said that during searches at Ulucay's residence, they seized evidence proving his ties to the group, including seven books about Kurdistan and Zoroastrianism.  

Police also said they found evidence linking Ulucay to Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric whom Turkey blames for masterminding a failed coup attempt in mid-2016.

The Turkish court released him March 7, 2017, for lack of sufficient evidence. But he was detained again a few hours later following a prosecutor's objection. The prosecutor requested a prison sentence of between 7½ and 15 years for his "membership in a terror organization."

Ulucay is not the only local employee of a U.S. consulate charged with terrorism in Turkey. Two other local consular employees, Metin Topuz and Nazmi Mete Canturk, are still under investigation for alleged attempts to undermine the Turkish government.  
 
Topuz, who worked as a translator for the Drug Enforcement Agency in the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul, has been in jail since October 2017. Turkish prosecutors are seeking a life sentence for him for "attempting to overthrow the government and espionage." A 78-page indictment against him contends he was in contact with several police officers linked to the Gulen movement, according to an Associated Press report.  
 
Canturk has been under house arrest since early 2018 for similar charges. 
 
Strained relations  
 
The arrests of American citizens and the U.S. mission's local hires have complicated the already tense relations between the United States and Turkey.

Officials in Washington have denied Turkish allegations and asked them to release all American citizens and U.S. employees charged with terrorism.  
 
Jonathan R. Cohen, a former deputy assistant secretary in the State Department's Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, told the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2017 that he questioned the terrorism charges.  
  
"The Turkish government has leveled flimsy terrorism charges against both Mr. Ulucay and Mr. Topuz. It appears they were arrested for maintaining legitimate contacts with government officials and others in the context of their official duties on behalf of the U.S. government," Cohen said.  
 
Topuz's arrest increased tensions between Turkey and the U.S. and led to the suspension of bilateral visa services for more than two months in 2017. Relations between the two countries also soured last year over the detention of the U.S. evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson on terrorism charges.  
 
Last August, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Turkey's justice and interior ministers over the continued detention of Brunson for two years, until his release last October.  
 
Some information in this report came from The Associated Press.