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Ankara Hopes US Would Reconsider Suspension of Visa Services to Turkish Citizens | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A woman waits in front of the visa application office entrance of the US Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, October 9, 2017. (Reuters)

Turkey hoped on Monday that Washington would go back on its decision to suspend most visa services to Turkish citizens following a spat with Ankara.

The row erupted when a Turkish employee of the US consulate in Istanbul was arrested last week.

Turkey’s Justice Minister said on Monday that the decision to proceed with the case against the detained consulate worker was one for the Turkish judiciary to take.

“Trying a Turkish citizen for a crime committed in Turkey is our right. I hope the US will revise its decision in this light,” Abdulhamit Gul told A Haber television.

The American embassy in Ankara said that “recent events” forced the US government to reassess Turkey’s “commitment” to the security of US mission services and personnel in the country.

In order to minimize the number of visitors while the assessment is carried out, “effective immediately we have suspended all non-immigrant visa services at all US diplomatic facilities in Turkey,” it said.

Non-immigrant visas are issued to all those traveling to the United States for tourism, medical treatment, business, temporary work or study. Immigrant visa services are only for those seeking to live in the US permanently.

Ankara responded by suspending “all visa services” for Americans in the US, saying the measures also apply to visas issued online and at the border.

In an apparent attempt to mock the US announcement, the Turkish embassy in Washington issued two statements that were almost word-for-word copies of that from the American embassy in Ankara.

The statements said concerns over US commitment to the security of Turkish diplomatic facilities and personnel necessitated the restrictions, but the fact that they only apply to Americans and also include visas issued at the border and online indicate the move is punitive rather than security-based.

The first statement from the Turkish embassy said the restrictions apply to “visas in passports” while the second replaced that wording with “sticker visas”. It was unclear if that meant that visas already stamped in passports would not be accepted.

Beyond its mention of “recent events”, the American embassy statement made no explicit mention of the arrest by Turkish authorities of a local Turkish staffer working at the US consulate in Istanbul.

The employee, Metin Topuz, was remanded in custody by an Istanbul court late Wednesday on accusations of links to the group of US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, blamed by Ankara for last year’s failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The staffer has been formally charged with espionage and seeking to overthrow the Turkish government. Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency reported that he allegedly communicated with former police chiefs in a 2013 corruption probe, 121 people involved in the attempted coup and hundreds of people using an encrypted mobile messaging application.

The US embassy on Thursday said it was “deeply disturbed” over the arrest and rejected the allegations against the employee as “wholly without merit”.

It also condemned leaks in the local press which it said came from Turkish government sources that were “seemingly aimed at trying the employee in the media rather than a court of law”.

But Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin has defended the arrest, saying “there must be serious evidence” and pointing to a phone call made from the Istanbul consulate to a key suspect on the night of the coup.

Hamza Ulucay, a translator of the US Consulate in the southern province of Adana, was arrested in March for alleged links to outlawed Kurdish militants.

For Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington DC, the situation signifies the unfolding of an historic crisis in US-Turkey relations.

“The idea is that this step would convince the Turkish elites to persuade Erdogan to stop harassing US citizens in Turkey — I think Erdogan will do the opposite and escalate,” he told AFP.

The pro-government Yeni Safak daily described it as “a scandalous decision from the United States”.

Turkish officials had expressed hope of a new page in Ankara-Washington relations under President Donald Trump.

Turkey has pressed Washington for the extradition of Pennsylvania-based Gulen, who denies any link to the coup bid — but the lack of movement on the issue has further strained ties.

More than 50,000 people have been arrested and 110,000 have been fired from government jobs as part of a state of emergency declared after the failed coup in Turkey.