Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and a senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations. Eric Edelman was U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2003 to 2005.
President Trump has expended significant political capital working to win the freedom of pastor Andrew Brunson, an American detained in Turkey for nearly two years now on baseless espionage and terrorism charges. Trump is right to do so, but he and his administration also have a moral obligation to come to the aid of three State Department workers facing a similar plight.
We write to draw attention to the plight of the U.S. foreign service nationals — largely ignored by the Trump administration and the press — who have also been detained by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s security apparatus. These “FSNs,” as foreign service nationals are traditionally known in diplomatic lexicon, are State Department employees. Another term for them is locally employed staff, which reflects the fact that the State Department hires Turks in Turkey, Bulgarians in Bulgaria and Argentines in Argentina. These unsung employees form the backbone of U.S. diplomatic efforts abroad. No American embassy or consulate could operate without them.
The three men have been detained in Turkey on bogus charges. Two are in jail, and one is under house arrest. As with tens of thousands of others imprisoned by the Turkish authorities in recent years, the charges against them are the product of paranoid conspiracy theories that beggar the imagination.
Jailed since February 2017, Hamza Ulucay is a 37-year veteran of the U.S. diplomatic service. Dollar bills found in his home were offered up by Turkish authorities as proof that Ulucay had something to do with the attempted July 15, 2016, coup d’etat against the Erdogan government. It is especially bizarre that Ulucay is alleged to have connections both to the network of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in the United States whom the government accuses of organizing the failed coup, and to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the insurgency movement deemed terrorist by both the United States and Turkey. The Gulen network has historically been a fierce opponent of the PKK and is loathed by most of the Kurdish population in Turkey’s southeast.
(We know all too well the Turkish authorities’ proclivity for inventing such farcical conspiracy theories; one of us, Barkey, has been accused of somehow orchestrating the failed 2016 coup, resulting in the issuance of an arrest warrant in absentia.)
Twenty-year department veteran Metin Topuz was likewise detained for allegedly trying to overthrow the Turkish government and for links to the Gulen movement. In both cases, U.S. officials have not been able to ascertain the specific criminal charges involved.
Nazmi Mete Canturk, who is charged with espionage and attempting to overthrow the government, has been under house arrest since January.
Erdogan has ended Turkey’s two-year state of emergency, but there is nothing to suggest that the Turkish government will stop using indictments as a means of detaining people indefinitely. In effect, Ulucay, Topuz and Canturk have become hostages whose fates rest in Erdogan’s hands.
The unwillingness of Washington to apply public pressure on Turkey to release these State Department employees sends an alarming message to other locally employed staff in Turkey: They are all subject to intimidation and pressure from Turkish authorities, and their employer doesn’t have their back. In effect, Turkish intelligence now has leverage over part of U.S. operations, shattering diplomatic conventions. Many of these local employees have resigned. Worse, the Turks’ actions may be copied by other authoritarian states that notice the U.S. government’s indifference.
It is quite possible that Erdogan will release Brunson, the detained pastor who was recently transferred to house arrest. Turkey may soon need help from the United States, a NATO ally, if its ailing economy slides into a meltdown. Brunson’s release would be welcome, but it would also present a danger that the U.S. government would consider the matter of unjustified detentions resolved — condemning Ulucay, Topuz and Canturk to years in Turkish jails.
Congress has an opportunity to play an important role here. A new U.S. ambassador to Turkey is likely to be nominated soon. The Senate should use the confirmation process to hold the administration accountable for the safety and security of all State Department employees.
The president’s letter of instruction to chiefs of mission enjoins them to undertake measures to ensure the safety of all the employees in their charge — Americans and their local colleagues. Ambassadors and consul generals have no more-solemn obligation. A U.S. failure to show that it stands by its people will cripple the State Department’s ability to represent America overseas. Either foreign service nationals are on the U.S. team, or they are not.