By CEYLAN YEGINSUDEC for The New York Times –
ISTANBUL — A Turkish court has issued an arrest warrant for an influential cleric and former ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania and whose followers have been accused of participating in a plot to overthrow the government, according to reports in the Turkish news media on Friday.
The cleric, Fethullah Gulen, 73, has been living in Pennsylvania since 1999, but still has a broad following in Turkey that has reached into elite law enforcement, judiciary and business circles. The warrant would most likely form the basis of a formal extradition request that analysts said the United States was unlikely to act upon.
The semiofficial Anadolu News Agency said prosecutors told the court they had collected evidence showing that Mr. Gulen “has committed crimes within the scope of the indictment” but that he could not be compelled to answer the charges “because of his long-term residence abroad.”
Mr. Gulen fled Turkey in the 1990s after being accused of plotting to topple the secularist government then in office. The charges against him were dropped in 2006, after elections that had elevated Mr. Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party.
As allies, Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gulen embarked on an uneasy partnership to remove the military from Turkish politics, but once they accomplished that goal, quiet tensions between the two men festered and burst into a public feud last year when Mr. Erdogan accused Mr. Gulen of instigating a graft inquiry that implicated members of his inner circle.
Mr. Erdogan called the investigation a coup attempt and accused Mr. Gulen’s followers — particularly those with high-ranking positions in the police and judiciary — of forming a “parallel state” to overthrow his government. Mr. Gulen has denied playing any role in plotting against the state.
The arrest warrant represents the latest attempt in Mr. Erdogan’s campaign to root out Mr. Gulen and his supporters. Over the past year, Mr. Erdogan has systematically purged his followers from the police and judiciary and earlier this week the police detained journalists and others in a new crackdown against Gulen-affiliated institutions. Eight of those arrested, including the editor of Turkey’s largest-selling newspaper, were released Friday, but four others remained in custody.
Analysts say that the arrest warrant for Mr. Gulen was a symbolic move and if a formal extradition request were to follow, it would likely worsen relations between Washington and Ankara, which were already strained over Turkey’s reluctance to more aggressively challenge Islamic State militants across the border in Syria.
“I don’t think that the Turkish prosecutors can have any serious expectations in getting Gulen in Turkey,” said Howard Eissenstat, a history professor at St. Lawrence University who has written extensively on Turkey. “I think that the best rationale for going through with this extradition effort is not so much to bring him to court, as it is to highlight the seriousness of their campaign and to emphasize the whole narrative of the parallel state and Turkey against enemies at home and abroad ahead of the next year’s elections.”
Mr. Eissenstat added that if Washington were to refuse an extradition request, that would feed into a narrative that Mr. Erdogan wants to establish in the public’s mind: that domestic enemies trying to undermine the state are supported by foreign powers.
Asked about the warrant on Friday, Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said, “As a matter of longstanding policy, the Department of State does not comment on pending extradition requests or confirm or deny that an extradition request has been made.”
A lawyer for Mr. Gulen could not be reached for comment.
In April, when Mr. Erdogan announced that he would seek Mr. Gulen’s extradition, the president’s critics argued that there was no legal basis to start the process. A treaty signed between the United States and Turkey states that a subject must have committed criminal activities punishable under the laws of both countries.
Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting.