(photo credit: REUTERS)
A battle is brewing between the US and Turkey.
Turkey has accused Fethullah Gulen, a powerful Turkish cleric and former ally of the ruling party who has lived in the US since 1999, of masterminding the failed July 15 coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and demanded the US extradite him to stand trial.
Can Turkey force the US to extradite him? Gulen runs a worldwide educational network and has tens of thousands of followers, including many in senior roles in the Turkish government, law enforcement, the judiciary and the media.
Though long an ally, he and Erdogan had policy disagreements, including about how much power Erdogan started to amass solely in his hands. The two had a major falling out and have been at war in the media and in the legal sphere for some time.
In principle, a 1979 extradition treaty between the US and Turkey obligates the US to extradite someone who is behind acts of murder, conspiracy and possibly even the attempted murder of the head of state, Erdogan.
But the devil is in the details.
Like most extradition agreements, the treaty includes a “political exception.”
This means that if the US determines that evidence submitted of a crime is tainted by political motivations, it can refuse an extradition request.
Nearly 300 Turks were killed and around 1,400 were wounded during the coup attempt.
Erdogan declared a state of emergency and has arrested thousands of Gulen’s followers and fired or suspended tens of thousands from their government, judicial, media and law enforcement jobs.
Whether elements of the coup leaders may have been supporters or not, many are accusing Erdogan of milking the failed coup as a chance to crack down on and eliminate anyone he sees as a political opponent from holding any power in the state.
Given that Erdogan’s commitment to the rule of law is already very much in question, Gulen calling the extradition request politically motivated could have special resonance.
Even a successful extradition could take months if not years, which could ruin US-Turkey relations if Turkey does not back down - and it has shown no signs that it will.
For the US to extradite Gulen, Turkey will need to submit much harder evidence than it has so far presented. It will need to convince the US Attorney’s Office of the validity of the evidence, then a federal court in Pennsylvania and then possibly fight off an appeals to higher federal courts.
After that, Secretary of State John Kerry still reviews extradition requests and can block them. But by the time the case gets to Kerry’s desk, it is unclear whether extraditing Gulen would be too little and too late to heal US-Turkey relations.
Also, Gulen is 75 and time and old age may eventually make his extradition irrelevant.
Another interpretation says Erdogan does not actually want him extradited, but only to use the issue as a domestic rallying cry against his opponents and critics in the West. By this narrative, the longer the proceedings drag out the better it is for Erdogan, who may also worry that in a public trial in Turkey, Gulen could reveal damaging information from when they were allies.
There is also the fact that Turkey has said it may give the death penalty to coup conspirators.
In general, the US is relatively speaking viewed as being pro-death penalty and some countries will not extradite to the US because of that.
However, Gulen’s stature could raise the issue to a level at which Kerry might insist on an extradition only on condition that Turkey promises not to sentence Gulen to death.
In sum, the legal obstacles to extraditing Gulen are substantial.
And even if they can be overcome, there are major political issues. Whether Erdogan will hold the line or eventually reverse course as he did in diplomatic fights with Russia and Israel will also play an important part. As much as the US cares about all of the above values, some still view Turkey as a critical ally as a military launching point for attacking ISIS and as a bridge with the Muslim world.