Nick Danforth
3 min readOct 25, 2017

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The Extradition Distraction

In the immediate aftermath of Turkey’s July 15 coup attempt, the debate in Washington over Fetullah Gulen’s role in it became inextricably linked with the debate over Turkey’s demand for his extradition. In different ways, this ongoing conflation serves the rhetorical interests of both sides, but in retrospect it would have been better for U.S.-Turkish relations if the two conversations had remained separate.

Over the past year, the evidence that Gulen ’s followers were centrally involved in the coup attempt has mounted. At the same time, as a result of Turkey’s subsequent response, it has become equally clear that Gulen will not, and should not, be extradited to Turkey. Focusing the debate on the imagined possibility of some future extradition enables the Turkish government to avoid acknowledging that its own actions have rendered this impossible. But it also enables Washington to perpetually put off any real discussion of Gulen’s guilt pending the improbable arrival of a solid legal case from Turkish prosecutors.

Moving past the extradition debate would allow for a more candid, focused and fruitful discussion over what, if anything, the United States could do to address Gulen’s role in the coup absent meaningful cooperation from the Turkish government.

In the days following Turkey’s coup attempt, many observers anticipated a coming U.S.-Turkish clash over Gulen’s extradition. I speculated, for example, that:

If Turkey produces clear evidence that Gulen’s followers were involved in the coup, but no evidence to implicate Gulen himself, the stage will be set for an epic confrontation between Erdogan’s anger and the strict requirements of the U.S. legal system for proof before extradition.

The confrontation has certainly been epic, but today even this pessimistic assessment seems naive in envisioning the possibility of a functional extradition process. While the legal threshold for extradition (probable cause) was not necessarily insurmountable, it should have been clearer from the outset that in the post-coup climate Ankara would be unable to surmount it.

The Turkish government routinely cites the 84 boxes of evidence it provided the United States on Gulen but seldom discusses what was in them. It is telling that the formal Turkish government indictment against Gulen based on the events at the coup headquarters begins by invoking the “ust akil,” a global mastermind that according to the indictment was working to topple Erdogan militarily after the failure of the Gezi Park protests. Moreover, in trying to explain the mechanism by which Gulen allegedly organized the coup, the indictment relies almost exclusively on the testimony of two anonymous informants, whose account and motives provide grounds for serious skepticism. All this, coupled with widespread torture, sweeping purges and the thorough politicization of the Turkish legal system, has created enduring political and legal obstacles to extradition.

At the same time, focusing on the obvious inadequacy of the Turkish government’s case, as well as the many mysteries still surrounding the coup attempt itself, has become a convenient way for Washington to avoid a more thorough reckoning with Gulen’s involvement. The publicly available evidence, if sometimes circumstantial, is still hard to explain away, and seems to confirm the assessment of many within the U.S. government about Gulen’s guilt. While the geopolitical stakes may be vastly different, comparisons between Gulen and post-trial OJ Simpson are not out of place.

The bitter irony is that if Gulen approved of the coup attempt, he helped so thoroughly destroy Turkish democracy that he will never face justice in Turkey. The inability of Turkey to provide — and the appropriate refusal of the United States to accept anything less than — persuasive evidence of Gulen’s personal legal guilt should not preclude the recognition of the dangerous role he and his movement have played in attempting to shape Turkey’s politics by non-democratic means. The challenge for Washington is to find a way to acknowledge and respond to this reality that can help restore U.S. credibility in Turkey without rewarding Erdogan’s aggressive post-coup measures.

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