Turkey has formally requested the extradition of cleric Fethullah Gulen from the United States, the prime minister said Tuesday, as the government widens its purge following a failed military coup over the weekend.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames Gulen, a longtime bitter rival, for the attempted coup that began Friday night, which left at least 232 people dead and gave way to mass arrests and dismissals.
Erdogan had told CNN in an exclusive interview on Monday that the extradition request was coming soon.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim made the announcement of the extradition request in Parliament on Tuesday and on Twitter referred to Gulen as a “terrorist leader”.
The Muslim cleric, living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, has denied any involvement.
“As someone who suffered under multiple military coups during the past five decades, it is especially insulting to be accused of having any link to such an attempt. I categorically deny such accusations,” Gulen said earlier.
“My position on democracy is really clear. Any attempt to overthrow the country is a betrayal to our unity and is treason.”
Can Gulen be extradited?
Under the U.S.-Turkey extradition agreement, Washington can only extradite a person if he or she has committed an “extraditable act.” Treason — such as that implied by Erdogan’s demand for Gulen’s extradition — is not listed as such an act in the countries’ treaty.
When asked what evidence the government had that Gulen was behind the coup, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said on Tuesday that the coup itself was the biggest piece of evidence, and that Turkey would provide hundreds and thousands of pieces of evidence to the United States of Gulen’s involvement.
He compared the coup to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States, saying that it was clear that Gulen was behind the coup, just as the United States knew al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was behind the 9/11 attacks.
Security forces gutted
The request for Gulen’s extradition is the latest move in the government’s efforts to rein in on dissent in the country.
More than 9,000 people are currently in detention in the fallout of the failed coup, Kurtulmus said, adding that a leader had yet to be identified.
The government has gutted some of the country’s security forces, dismissing almost 9,000 people from the Interior Ministry, mostly police officers, and hundreds of others from various ministries.
Among those detained are at least 118 generals and admirals, accounting for a third of the general-rank command of the Turkish military, according to Turkish state broadcaster TRT.
More than 80 judges are also among those arrested, as are lawyers, senior aides and police.
A photo emerged over the weekend of dozens of detainees, who appeared to be all men, seen stripped to the waist in a horse stable, their hands bound.
When asked about how the situation came to be, Kurtulmus, said it was “normal procedure for police under these circumstances,” adding that their “crime is very heavy.”
Two pilots who downed a Russian jet last year are also among “the detained soldiers who attempted the coup,” said Turkish Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdag.
Friends turned foes
Erdogan and Gulen are former allies whose relationship fell into a bitter feud in 2013.
Erdogan supporters outside Gulen’s Pennsylvania home have been calling him inflammatory names following the weekend violence. Gulen’s supporters accused Erdogan of scapegoating the cleric to simply grab at more power.
Gulen is a reclusive cleric who leads a popular movement called Hizmet, which includes hundreds of secular co-ed schools, free tutoring centers, hospitals and relief agencies credited with addressing many of Turkey’s social problems.
Gulen supporters — known as Gulenists — describe the 75-year-old as a moderate Muslim cleric who champions interfaith dialogue.
Whistleblower site WikiLeaks seems to think Turkey’s purge has spread to cyberspace. It says it has come under a sustained cyber attack after announcing on social media its plan to leak hundreds of thousands of documents on “Turkish power” on Tuesday.
Its website had said it would leak 300,000 emails and 500,000 documents in the wake of a failed military coup over the weekend, which has led to a vast purge of the country’s security forces and judiciary.
“We are unsure of the true origin of the attack. The timing suggests a Turkish state power faction or its allies. We will prevail & publish,” WikiLeaks tweeted late on Monday night.
The WikiLeaks website appeared operational on Tuesday morning, and WikiLeaks said it planned to go ahead with publishing the #ErdoganEmails on Tuesday, adding that all 300,000 were internal to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party.
It was unclear when the other 500,000 documents would be released. The organization says the emails date up until July 7, just over a week before the coup was launched last Friday night.
Death penalty talks
International pressure is mounting on Erdogan after he responded to the failed coup with an iron fist.
In an interview with CNN on Monday, he said refused to rule out the death penalty for thousands of people arrested in the political upheaval, despite warnings from the EU that reintroducing capital punishment would dash Turkey’s chances of joining the European Union.
The EU official overseeing Turkey’s bid to join, Johannes Hahn, expressed concern over Turkey’s post-coup purge, raising suspicions that a list of people to arrest had been prepared well in advance of the political upheaval.
“At least that something has been prepared. [That] the lists are available already after the event indicates that this was prepared, that at a certain moment [they] should be used,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also warned that Turkey must respect the law and its democratic institutions if it wanted to remain part of NATO, the North Atlantic military and political alliance.