Matt Spetalnick and Julia Harte
SAYLORSBURG, Pa. (Reuters) – Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based Muslim cleric accused by Turkey of instigating last year’s failed coup, says he has no plans to flee the United States and would accept extradition if Washington agrees to a request by Ankara to hand him over.
In an interview in his gated compound in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, Gulen, 79, denied a Turkish government allegation from February that he was preparing to leave for Canada to avoid extradition.
“The rumors aren’t true at all,” he told Reuters.
“If the United States sees it appropriate to extradite me, I would leave (for Turkey),” he said, sitting in an ornate meeting room, its walls lined with Islamic scripture.
President Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish government accuse Gulen of orchestrating last July’s attempted coup, in which rogue soldiers commandeered tanks and fighter jets, bombing parliament and trying to abduct or kill Erdogan. More than 240 people were killed in the violence.
The Turkish Embassy in Washington declined to comment on Gulen’s latest remarks. The White House did not respond immediately to requests for comment. Officials in Ankara could also not immediately be reached for comment.
Erdogan said in May he would pursue “to the end” Turkey’s demand for the extradition of Gulen, who denies any involvement in the coup attempt. But there has been little or no concrete progress on the Turkish request.
U.S. officials have said privately that even though Erdogan has appealed directly to U.S. President Donald Trump on the matter, Turkey has yet to provide enough evidence for the Justice Department to act.
The issue has been a major sticking point in the relationship between the two NATO allies.
Gulen said he hoped that the Trump administration would not allow his extradition to move forward, especially after the resignation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, a White House aide who quit just weeks after Trump’s inauguration.
Flynn, who resigned over his failure to disclose the extent of his contacts with Russia, had performed paid lobbying work that “could be construed to have principally benefited” the Turkish government, according to his lobbying registration filings, and was outspoken in favor of Gulen’s extradition.
Gulen said he felt “pity” for Flynn but acknowledged that the former Trump aide’s departure might have helped his case.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the status of Turkey’s extradition request. There was no immediate response from Flynn’s lawyer to a request for comment.
Gulen, a former Erdogan ally, has lived in self-imposed exile since 1999, presiding over what he says is a humanitarian religious movement. His followers operate a global network of schools and businesses that has been linked to the Gulenist movement.
His network was declared a terrorist group by Turkey’s national security council two months before the failed coup. Since then, Gulen himself has become an increasingly marginalized figure across the political spectrum.
Following the putsch, a wide crackdown, which the government says is targeting Gulen’s followers, has seen 50,000 people arrested and 150,000 state workers including teachers, judges and soldiers suspended under emergency rule.
Gulen denounced Erdogan’s consolidation of power and the seizure of media outlets, comparing him to a “dictator.” He urged the Trump administration and European governments to do more to encourage the restoration of political freedoms in Turkey.
Slideshow (5 Images)
“(If Erdogan hears) a strong voice from the United States or European Union, European Parliament, Brussels, saying: ‘What you are doing is wrong … your judicial system is not working,’ then maybe he will change his mind,” the cleric said.
European leaders have been critical of Erdogan’s crackdown, but Washington has been more muted in its response. In a meeting in Washington in May, Trump made no mention of Erdogan’s record on dissent and free speech.
The Turkish government has repeatedly said its actions are justified by the gravity of the threat posed to the state by last year’s coup, and rejected suggestions that it is clamping down on dissent.
“The rule of law is upheld in Turkey, and it is not just about gaining more power or punishing the opposition,” Revza Kavakci Kan, deputy chair of Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, told a conference in Washington on Monday.
Gulen praised the political opposition in Turkey and stressed that any fresh effort to remove Erdogan should be through peaceful protest and elections, not non-democratic means.
His followers say his global movement – known as “Hizmet,” which means “service” in Turkish – seeks to spread a moderate brand of Islam, which promotes Western-style education, free markets and interfaith communication.
“I have never supported a coup or an ouster,” he said.
Today, Gulen is an isolated figure in Turkey, reviled by Erdogan’s supporters but also shunned by much of the opposition, who see his network as having conspired over decades to undermine the secular foundations of the modern republic.
Hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets of Istanbul on Sunday to protest against Erdogan’s crackdown, but there was no sign of sympathy for Gulen.
Gulen appeared frail in the interview, walking with a shuffle, and keeping his longtime doctor close at hand.
Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall in London and Alastair Macdonald in Brussels; Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney//