An Israeli attorney met Monday for the first time with one of two Israelis being held in a Turkish jail on espionage suspicions for photographing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s palace in Istanbul last week.
Despite earlier expectations that husband and wife Mordy and Natali Oknin would be released, a Turkish court on Friday extended the couple’s remand by 20 days, with local authorities saying they suspected the Oknins of espionage.
Israel has firmly and formally rejected the allegation that the couple, both of whom are Egged bus drivers, are Israeli spies.
As the first Israeli official who has been permitted access, attorney Nir Yaslovitzh described his emotional meeting with Mordy Oknin. Yaslovitzh is set to see Oknin’s wife, Natali, on Tuesday.
“Without being too theatrical, the meeting included too many tears of his and mine,” Yaslovitzh said in a statement. “I assured him that I will bring him home and I mean to fulfill that.”
“I can confirm that the conditions he is in are not easy. He was very moved to see somebody who speaks Hebrew,” the attorney said.
Oknin is being held in spartan conditions, and is kept separate from other prisoners including his wife, Yaslovitzh said. He added that he intends to see if something can be done to improve the conditions.
Oknin asked “difficult questions” about how long the situation would go on, how the Turkish system works, and why he was even under arrest.
Yaslovitzh said he explained the situation as it stands and told Oknin that “an entire country is following this story.” He added: “I tried to provide him with hope and faith.”
Earlier in the day, the Foreign Ministry said Israeli diplomats would be allowed to make a consular visit to the couple. The ministry said that the embassy in Ankara and the consulate in Istanbul are working to find the earliest possible time for the visit.
Channels 12 and 13 aired a Hebrew video Monday of the couple that was apparently shot shortly before they were arrested.
Another Israeli tourist, Ahmed Faroudja, told the network he had approached the couple on an Istanbul street when he heard them speaking Hebrew, explaining that a friend of his was too scared to visit Turkey. He asked the Oknins to explain why it is safe to visit the country and recorded their response.
“There is nothing to fear,” Natali said to the camera. “It is fun in Turkey, safe in Turkey, you can speak Hebrew openly. They love us Israelis.”
“Come, everything is okay,” Mordy added.
Opening his Yesh Atid party faction meeting in the Knesset Monday afternoon, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said that Israel was “working around the clock” to ensure the couple’s release and asked lawmakers, ministers, and Israeli media outlets to speak about the issue “responsibly” in order to ensure their safety.
Israeli officials believe the coming days will be critical in the attempt to secure the release of the Oknins, according to television reports on Sunday. Channel 12 and 13 both quoted officials as saying they believe that if the saga is not resolved in the next two days or three days, the couple could remain in Turkish custody for years.
Turkish authorities detained the couple, residents of Modiin, on Thursday after they photographed Erdogan’s palace and sent the photo to their family. The couple and their family insist they did not know it was illegal to do so, and media reports have said thousands of tourists — including Israelis — regularly take photos of the palace.
Yaslovitzh is set to appeal against prosecutors’ intentions to charge them with espionage and against the 20-day extension of their remand.
The Sunday reports said that diplomatic efforts were being kept low-key in the hope of not causing an escalation that could then become much more complex to resolve. Officials are hoping that Turkey will quietly expel the couple, bringing the incident to an end. The delicate diplomacy is further complicated because the two governments do not have ambassadors in each other’s countries due to longstanding tensions between Ankara and Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at the opening of Sunday’s cabinet meeting that he was working to secure the Oknins’ release.
“They are two innocent citizens who accidentally got into a complicated situation,” Bennett said.
The arrests came a day after a bill to recognize the Armenian genocide was presented before the Knesset plenum for a preliminary discussion. Similar bill proposals have been submitted dozens of times in recent years, without advancing toward becoming law, making it unlikely to be connected to the arrests.
Nonetheless, there are indications that Turkey does not intend to provoke a more serious spat. Erdogan has not publicly commented on the affair, nor has he made any demands from Israel. Turkish media has also given the case little attention beyond the initial arrests, with hardly any mention at all made on Sunday, according to Hebrew outlets.
Israeli tourists vacationing in Turkey told Hebrew media Sunday that, while they are not noticing any particular animosity towards them, they are being cautious about what they photograph.
However, a Channel 13 news reporter was detained while broadcasting live from Turkey about the Oknins. The reporter, Ali Mograbi, was released after some 30 minutes, the outlet said.
Mograbi said it was noticeable that policemen were tailing him all day. When he started a live broadcast in the street they came and told him to stop. They then took him and made sure he deleted all the photos he had taken before releasing him and telling him not to leave the hotel, he said.