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Turkish court orders US consulate staffer held in spying trial

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Istanbul (AFP)

A Turkish court on Thursday ordered a US consulate staffer accused of spying held in detention while he is on trial, his lawyers said.

The case of Metin Topuz, a Turkish citizen and liaison for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, is part of a growing rift between Washington and Ankara.

First arrested in 2017, Topuz is accused of contacts with police and a prosecutor suspected of ties to US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara says ordered a failed 2016 coup.

"Under normal circumstances, he should have been released based on the evidence presented to the court," lawyer Halit Akalp told reporters in Istanbul's Caglayan court where Topuz went on trial on Monday.

Topuz, who faces life in prison if found guilty, will next appear in court on May 15.

"I am innocent, I did not commit any crime," Topuz told the court on Thursday, an AFP reporter said. "All my contacts were just part of my job."

US embassy and consular officials, who have dismissed the charges as being without merit, were also at the courthouse to observe proceedings.

"We did not see today any evidence of criminal wrongdoing and we reiterate our government's call for swift and fair resolution of this matter," US Consul General Jennifer Davis told reporters.

- Spying charge -

The trial has begun at a time when NATO allies United States and Turkey are increasingly at odds over Syria, a Turkish purchase of a Russian missile system and the US refusal to extradite Gulen back home.

According to his indictment, Topuz is accused of espionage as well as arranging arms trafficking through exchanges on the Whatsapp messaging service.

Since the failed 2016 coup against Erdogan, tens of thousands of people have been arrested over suspected ties to Gulen and more than 100,000 people have been suspended from public sector jobs. Gulen rejects the coup accusations.

Ankara has been criticised by its Western allies and rights defenders over the crackdown, which they say has weakened democracy. But Turkish officials say the raids are needed to purge Gulen's influence from judiciary, police and military.

Ties were already strained over US support of Kurdish forces in Syria, which Ankara brands as a terrorist group tied to PKK Kurdish militants fighting an insurgency against the Turkish state.

Erdogan's decision to buy S-400 missile systems from Russia has provoked warnings from Washington that the deal may impact its sale of US-made F-35 fighter jets to Turkey and trigger sanctions.

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