- The Trump White House has asked the Justice Department and FBI to look into extraditing a Muslim cleric exiled in the U.S. to appease the Turkish government
- The U.S. government has long opposed Turkish demands to extradite the cleric, Fethullah Gulen
- According to NBC News, the White House is considering the move in order to please Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has taken aim at the Saudi government over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi
The White House has reportedly asked federal law enforcement agencies to explore ways to legally extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in exile in the U.S. who is a staunch foe of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The White House asked the Justice Department and FBI in October to reopen the case for Gulen’s extradition in attempt to appease Erdogan, who has railed against Saudi Arabia over the Oct. 2 murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi, according to NBC News.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, an ally of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, has faced intense international blowback over Khashoggi’s murder. Erdogan has alleged that the killing, which occurred at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, was ordered at “the highest levels” of the Saudi government.
Any push for extradition would open President Donald Trump to criticism for appeasing two nations accused of repressing the press, free speech and other human rights.
Turkey has the distinction of being the world’s leading jailer of journalists. Many of the dozens of journalists who have been jailed have been targeted over suspected links to Turkey’s pro-Gulen movement, which is considered a terrorist group in Turkey.
Khashoggi’s murder gained international attention largely because he was a contributor to The Washington Post.
The White House request to revisit Gulen’s extradition was met with outrage from career government officials, according to NBC.
“At first there were eye rolls, but once they realized it was a serious request, the career guys were furious,” a senior U.S. official told NBC News.
Erdogan has pressed both the Obama and Trump administrations for Gulen’s extradition. The cleric, who is believed to be in his late 70s and has legal permanent resident status, has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999. (RELATED: Turkish Government Will Run ‘Operations’ Against Erdogan’s Opponents, His Spokesman Says)
Erdogan accuses Gulen, his former political ally, of masterminding a failed coup attempt that left more than 250 soldiers and civilians dead on July 15, 2016.
Gulen has vehemently denied ordering the overthrow attempt. While the Turkish government considers Gulen a terrorist, the U.S. government has reportedly pressed their counterparts in Ankara for evidence linking Gulen to the overthrow attempt.
Erdogan has led a crackdown within Turkey against Gulen followers. He has arrested thousands of civil servants and shuttered news outlets affiliated with the Gulen movement, known as Hizmet.
Erdogan has also acknowledged that he was using American pastor Andrew Brunson as a bargaining chip in hopes of forcing the U.S. to extradite Gulen.
Brunson was released from jail on Oct. 12, after spending more than two years in prison or on house arrest over bogus charges that he aided terrorists, including Gulen’s network of followers.
The Turkish government has also hired American lobbyists to target Gulen and a network of charter schools operated by the imam’s supporters in the U.S.
One of those lobbying campaigns involved Flynn Intel Group, the consulting firm founded by Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn. Flynn signed a $600,000 contract in August 2016 with a shell company owned by Ekim Alptekin, the former chairman of the Turkish-U.S. Business Council, a trade group controlled by the Turkish government.
The Justice Department investigated Flynn’s lobbying efforts and forced him to register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. As part of his work for the Turkish government, Flynn allegedly discussed a plan to remove Gulen from his Pennsylvania compound and return him to Turkey.
It is widely believed that Gulen would spend the rest of his life in prison if returned to Turkey, where he would face terrorism charges.
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