Couple arrested in Turkey must be released – editorial

It is the nightmare of every tourist. You save, plan a vacation, and go with your spouse after nearly two years of COVID-19-induced grounding.

For the residents of Modi’in and the Egged bus drivers Natali and Mordy Oaknin, their chosen destination was Istanbul, close and full of picturesque places, good food and friendly people. Like all of us, they took photos while exploring the city.

While visiting the Camilca Tower, a television tower that opened earlier this year and is the tallest in Europe, they took photos of the exterior of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s palace, not knowing that it was illegal to photograph the site (so absurd as that law may be, it fits into the totalitarian approach of the Erdogan regime to rule the country.)

After a waitress overheard them talking about taking the photos, she notified the police and the couple were quickly arrested. Although the Turkish police recommended deporting the Oaknins for their “infraction”, the prosecution in the case decided to chain the couple to the scandalous charges of “political or military espionage”.

A court extended his pretrial detention on Friday for at least 20 days, along with that of his Turkish tour guide while the prosecution prepares its case.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a press conference in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 16, 2021 (credit: REUTERS / MURAD SEZER)

Since then, Israel has been conducting silent diplomacy nonstop in an effort to free the Oaknins. In a flash of light, Turkey on Monday authorized a visit by officials from the Israeli consulate in Istanbul. The head of the Foreign Ministry’s Consular Division, Rina Djerassi, was also dispatched to Istanbul to reinforce efforts to secure her release.

At the same time, an effort was being made to appoint an Israeli lawyer to the couple’s defense team, which would allow a meeting to take place with the Israeli representation. The couple’s Israeli lawyer, Nir Yaslovitzh, told Ynet on Monday that his Turkish partner in the case visited the Oaknins and found they were being treated appropriately.

Israel walks a tightrope pressing for the couple’s release while keeping a low profile in its efforts not to erupt into a full-blown diplomatic crisis with Turkey and Erdogan. The efforts are further complicated because the two governments do not have ambassadors in each other’s countries due to long-standing tensions between Ankara and Jerusalem.

Despite the low profile, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog emphasized Sunday that the Oaknins were not state agents, but innocent victims.

“These are two innocent citizens who accidentally ended up in a complex situation, and we are doing everything we can to resolve the matter,” Bennett said Sunday.

From the distributed and published photos of the Oaknins in the local media, they look like a normative couple, even in their Egged uniforms. It could be any of us, carefree tourists dining and taking photos one minute and in a Turkish jail the next, charged with spying and facing years in prison.

The Oaknins’ nightmare must come to a quick end as soon as possible. Both Channel 12 and 13 quoted Israeli officials as saying that if the couple is not released in the next two to three days, the likelihood that they will go to trial and be convicted of espionage will increase dramatically.

It is unclear whether Erdogan, who has been openly hostile towards Israel, is involved in the case and uses the Oaknins as pawns in an effort to exert more influence on the Israeli-Palestinian front and Muslim claims on Jerusalem in particular.

But Israel must make every effort to reach it. Earlier this year, Herzog and Erdogan spoke by phone for 40 minutes, the first call between the Turkish president and an Israeli official since 2017.

We certainly hope that behind the scenes, another phone conversation is taking place between the two, one that will result in the release of the Oaknins and their safe return to Israel.

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