Israeli couple held in Turkey on spy charges released after behind scenes talks

Israeli couple held in Turkey on spy charges released after behind scenes talks
Israeli couple Mordi and Natalie Oknin, who were held in Turkey for a week on suspicion of espionage, speak to journalists hours after they were released at their home in Modiin, Israel, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 18 November 2021

Israeli couple held in Turkey on spy charges released after behind scenes talks

Israeli couple held in Turkey on spy charges released after behind scenes talks
  • Experts welcome quick diplomatic resolution to incident as Israel’s president thanks Turkish counterpart for cooperation

ANKARA: An Israeli couple detained last week in Turkey on spy charges for photographing the presidential residence in Istanbul were on Thursday released by Turkish authorities.

Bus drivers Natali and Mordy Oknin returned to Israel with two senior consular officials on a private jet sent by the Israeli government after Ankara’s surprise move to let them go.

The pair’s story had been followed closely in Israel which had branded the espionage allegations as “groundless.”

Turkey’s decision to end the week-long standoff has been interpreted by analysts as being a positive sign of its desire to prevent a new fallout with Israel.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog welcomed the couple back home and thanked Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid as well as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government for their cooperation.

Bennett also congratulated the couple’s family for showing restraint despite fears that the legal process to set them free could have taken a decade and said the relatives had played a significant role in efforts to bring them home.

However, on Tuesday Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu claimed that the Israeli couple had been engaged in diplomatic and military espionage by “focusing” on Erdogan’s residence while taking photographs, but he said the court would decide on their case.

Turkish authorities had originally said the couple were arrested for photographing the presidential residence in the Kisikli neighborhood of Istanbul’s Anatolian side, but Israeli and foreign media reports suggested the pair were on a boat trip and had simply used a zoom lens to snap the waterfront of Dolmabahce Palace, one of the most popular visitor sites in the city that is occasionally used by the Turkish president.

Neither Israel nor Turkey have ambassadors in each other’s country due to a diplomatic rift that has lasted for years.

Turkey recalled its envoy in May 2018 in an escalating dispute over Israel’s response to Palestinian protests at the Gaza border, which broke out in the wake of the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem.

Selin Nasi, the London representative of the Ankara Policy Center, told Arab News: “The charges brought against the Israeli couple and their tour guide mark a new low for Turkish-Israeli relations, even if the incident was something local that got out of hand, as some media reports claim.”

Around 15 people were recently detained by Turkish authorities on espionage charges for Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency.

Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization and police revealed an Iranian spy network in eastern Turkey in October after eight people including two Iranians were detained over a plot to kidnap a former Iranian soldier in Turkey.

Nasi said the charges brought against the Israeli couple when assessed in line with Turkey’s detention of 15 people in October who allegedly worked for Israel’s Mossad agency, had created a prevailing perception on the Turkish side that Israel was engaged in espionage operations against Turkish interests.

“This clearly contradicts with Turkey’s rapprochement efforts with Israel since mid-2020 which were met positively yet also with skepticism on the Israeli side.

“We know that intelligence cooperation between Turkey and Israel has more or less continued for decades, up until today, even when the diplomatic ties had seemingly hit rock bottom,” she added.

Erdogan has so far kept silent on the Oknin incident.

Nasi said: “The longer this issue remained in the media spotlight, the more it would have harmed Turkey’s international image.

“Still, the international media’s portrayal of the incident as an arbitrary arrest of innocent civilians during their vacation in Turkey is likely to affect tourism negatively, which constitutes an important source of revenue for the Turkish economy.”

Around 500,000 Israeli tourists had visited Turkey in 2019 prior to the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and Nasi pointed out that the Oknin situation may in the short term deter Israelis from picking Turkey as a holiday destination.

Nasi noted that the Israelis had been in favor of keeping diplomatic channels of dialogue open with Turkey since 2010.

“Unless the mutual trust is revived between Turkey and Israel, however, steps for normalization are likely to remain superficial,” she added.


Amnesty urges Yemen’s Houthi militia to free journalists on death row

Updated 8 sec ago

Amnesty urges Yemen’s Houthi militia to free journalists on death row

Amnesty urges Yemen’s Houthi militia to free journalists on death row
DUBAI: Amnesty International has urged Yemen’s Houthi militia to free four journalists facing the death penalty for “espionage” in the war-torn country, ahead of an appeal court hearing on Sunday.
The four, Abdul Khaleq Amran, Tawfiq Al-Mansouri, Harith Hamid and Akram Al-Walidi were arrested in June 2015 in Yemen’s Houthi-held capital Sanaa.
“Yemen’s Houthi de facto authorities must quash the death sentences and order the immediate release of four Yemeni journalists who are facing execution following a grossly unfair trial,” the rights group said in a statement on Friday.
In April 2020, a Houthi court sentenced the four journalists to death on charges of “treason and spying for foreign states.”
“This has been a sham of a trial since the beginning and has borne a terrible toll on the men and their families,” said Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director Lynn Maalouf, according to the statement.
One of the detained men, Mansouri, is in a “critical health condition” with heart and other ailments, Amnesty said.
“Pending their overdue release, the journalists must be provided with urgent medical care — the denial of medical treatment for the seriously ill is an act of cruelty which amounts to torture and other ill-treatment,” the statement said.
At the time of their trial, Amnesty criticized their sentencing on “trumped-up charges,” while Reporters Without Borders called the verdict “totally unacceptable.”
Their arrest was motivated by their reporting on “human rights violations committed by Houthis,” the International Federation of Journalists and the Yemeni Journalists’ Syndicate have said.
An appeal will be heard by the Specialized Criminal Appeals Division in Sanaa on Sunday.

US should prioritize Somali civilian protection: HRW

US should prioritize Somali civilian protection: HRW
Updated 20 May 2022

US should prioritize Somali civilian protection: HRW

US should prioritize Somali civilian protection: HRW
  • ‘Officials should be very clear on how forces will avoid harming Somali civilians during military operations’
  • Biden signed order reversing Trump administration decision to withdraw nearly all 700 troops

LONDON: US military forces redeploying to Somalia must make civilian protection “a priority,” Human Rights Watch said on Friday.

US President Joe Biden on Monday signed an order reversing a Trump administration decision to remove nearly all 700 American troops from the East African state and redeploy them as part of a joint operation with the Somali government to tackle Al-Shabab, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda.

“US officials should be very clear on how forces will avoid harming Somali civilians during military operations,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at HRW.

“They will need to work closely with the Somali and African Union authorities to avoid repeating past laws of war violations and promptly and appropriately respond to civilian loss.”

HRW said past American operations in Somalia had not only resulted in loss of life and Somali property, but that the US had neither recognized these losses nor provided redress.

US military activities have been conducted in Somalia since at least 2007, but 2017 witnessed a marked increase in airstrikes before the Trump administration ordered the troop withdrawals in late 2020.

Somalia’s new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud welcomed the news that some 500 US troops would be returning, with HRW saying Al-Shabab has continued to conduct indiscriminate and targeted attacks on civilians and forcibly recruited children.

Nonetheless, Bader said the return of US military personnel must include a course correction that ensures it takes all allegations of civilian harm seriously and credibly investigates them.

“A culture of impunity for civilian loss breeds resentment and mistrust among the population and undermines efforts to build a more rights-respecting state,” she added.

“The US government recognizes the need to credibly investigate and compensate for civilian harm, but the military has yet to make this a reality.”


Iran arrests prominent activists on ‘baseless accusations’: HRW

Iran arrests prominent activists on ‘baseless accusations’: HRW
Updated 20 May 2022

Iran arrests prominent activists on ‘baseless accusations’: HRW

Iran arrests prominent activists on ‘baseless accusations’: HRW
  • This is ‘another desperate attempt to silence support for growing popular social movements’
  • Country rocked by ongoing labor strikes, protests over rising pric

LONDON: Iran has arrested several prominent activists on what Human Rights Watch described on Friday as “baseless accusations” amid ongoing labor strikes and protests over rising prices.

Citing news outlets close to Iran’s intelligence apparatus, HRW said the arrested are accused of “contact with suspicious foreign actors,” although no evidence was provided to back the claim bar the assertion by authorities that they had arrested two Europeans earlier this month.

“The arrests of prominent members of civil society in Iran on baseless accusations of malicious foreign interference is another desperate attempt to silence support for growing popular social movements in the country,” said Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at HRW.

“Instead of looking to civil society for help in understanding and responding to social problems, Iran’s government treats them as an inherent threat.”

Since May 6, people have gathered in at least 19 cities and towns to protest the news that Iran will experience price-rises for essential goods in the coming months, with MPs saying at least two people have been killed in the protests so far.

In the last week of April, dozens of teachers’ union activists were arrested after calling for nationwide protests to demand reforms of the pay scale system.

HRW said over the past four years there has been a spike in widespread protests in Iran, organized by major unions, over economic inequalities stemming from declining living standards.

It added that security forces have responded to protests with excessive, lethal force, and have arrested thousands, using prosecution and imprisonment based on illegitimate charges as the main tool to silence prominent dissidents and human rights defenders.

Since these latest protests kicked off at the start of May, authorities have heavily disrupted internet access in multiple provinces.

“Iranian authorities have long sought to criminalize solidarity among members of civil society groups inside and outside the country,” said Sepehri Far.

“The intention is to prevent accountability and scrutiny of state actions that civil society provides.”


Yemen’s defense minister discusses bilateral cooperation with US, UK military attachés 

Yemen’s defense minister discusses bilateral cooperation with US, UK military attachés 
Updated 20 May 2022

Yemen’s defense minister discusses bilateral cooperation with US, UK military attachés 

Yemen’s defense minister discusses bilateral cooperation with US, UK military attachés 
  • Al-Maqashi highly praised the US administration's efforts to establish peace in Yemen and its support for the government

DUBAI: Yemen’s minister of Defense, Mohammed al-Maqdashi, met with Colonel Mark Rittman, American Military and Security Attaché in the country’s US embassy on Thursday. 

The two discussed ways they can fight terrorism, in addition to military and security cooperation between the two nations. 

Al-Maqashi highly praised the US administration's efforts to establish peace in Yemen and its support for the government. 

Separately, Al-Maqashi met with the British Military Attaché in the UN embassy in Yemen to discuss bilateral cooperation between the two countries in the field of defense.


Russian, Emirati officials look to enhance ‘strong ties’

Russian, Emirati officials look to enhance ‘strong ties’
Updated 20 May 2022

Russian, Emirati officials look to enhance ‘strong ties’

Russian, Emirati officials look to enhance ‘strong ties’
  • The two sides discussed ways “to better serve the interests of their people”

DUBAI: UAE and Russian officials met on Thursday to discuss ways to enhance “strong ties” between the two countries, state news agency WAM reported. 

Chairman of Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Abdullah Mohamed Al-Mazrouei, held meetings with Chairman of the Russian-Emirati inter-parliamentary Group, Аrsen Bashirovich Kanokov, in Abu Dhabi. 

During the meeting, which was also attended by Mohamed Helal Al Mheiri, Director-General of Abu Dhabi Chamber, the two sides discussed ways “to better serve the interests of their people,” according to WAM.

Al-Mazrouei highlighted that both the UAE and Russia possess the necessary capabilities to strengthen relations in areas such as trade, artificial intelligence and innovation. 

Kanokov expressed Russia’s keenness to enhance relations with the UAE in addition to strengthening ties between the business community in Abu Dhabi and Russia. He added that the goal is to build on what has been accomplished between the two sides over the years.

Kanokov also extended his condolences on the passing of the late Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, and congratulated Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan for being elected as UAE President.