Israel says Trump sought Turkish detainee’s release, Ankara denies deal


JERUSALEM/ANKARA: Israel confirmed on Friday a US newspaper report that President Donald Trump had requested its release of a Turkish woman accused of Hamas ties, while Ankara denied ever agreeing to free a detained American pastor in return.

Israel deported Ebru Ozkan on July 15, a week after indicting her for smuggling money and goods to the Palestinian Islamist militant group while visiting as a tourist – charges her lawyer denied and which angered Turkey.

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that Trump had asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a July 14 phone call to let Ozkan go in what the White House envisaged as an indirect trade for Pastor Andrew Brunson.

“I can confirm that there was such a request by President Trump,” an Israeli official said on condition of anonymity, without elaborating on whether this effected Ozkan’s release.

The US Embassy in Jerusalem had no immediate comment.

Brunson, arrested for alleged links to a group that Ankara blames over a 2016 coup attempt, was moved to house arrest on Wednesday – prompting the Trump administration to threaten sanctions against fellow NATO-power Turkey.

The pastor denies the charges against him. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has in the past linked his fate with that of US-based Muslim cleric Fehullah Gulen, whom Turkey wants to try as the chief coup-plotter. Gulen has denied any such role.

Ankara said it had not agreed to any Ozkan-Brunson swap.

“Those reports are completely baseless,” a senior Turkish official said. “The Turkish government has no intention of meddling in the affairs of the country’s independent judiciary.”

Ozkan had been held by Israel on “bogus terrorism charges,” the Turkish official added.

At the time of Ozkan’s release, another Israeli official told Reuters that among the reasons was that, upon review, prosecutors deemed her case too weak to warrant pursuing. But her Israeli lawyer, Omar Khamaisi, said on Friday that the indictment against his client had yet to be withdrawn.

Returning to Istanbul on July 16, Ozkan said Erdogan had been “kind enough to be very interested in my case”. Khamaisi said he was unaware of the reported diplomatic deal around her release.