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‘I didn’t think I’d get home alive’: Israeli couple recalls Turkish custody

Back in Israel, Natali Oknin thanks officials for efforts to set her and husband Mordy free, says she just wants to go back to driving her bus

Natali and Mordy 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, on November 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Natali and Mordy 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, on November 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The Israeli couple freed from eight days of detention in Turkey for suspected espionage, after they photographed the president’s palace, spoke of their time in Turkish custody in a series of television interviews on Thursday evening.

“I didn’t eat. I keep kosher,” Natali Oknin told Channel 12 news, saying she asked for just bread and water instead of meals.

“There were a lot of bad thoughts and we always had faith,” her husband, Mordy Oknin, said. “We believed in God and that it would be okay, but we did not know the magnitude of the problem and that it was so critical,” he told the network.

“We saw that everyone was taking pictures. If it was so critical, they should have told us that taking pictures is forbidden,” he added.

“We didn’t even think of the word ‘spy.’ It was not in our minds to get into such a situation,” he told the network.

In a separate interview with Channel 13, Natali Oknin said Israel “saved” them. “They got us home… we felt like we were captives,” she added.

Previously, Natali Oknin had been highly critical in social media posts of Israel’s new government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. She was asked whether the affair changed her stance.

“Absolutely. Absolutely… I don’t have the words to thank them enough,” she said.

Natali (center) and Mordy Oknin (right), an Israeli couple who had been jailed for photographing the Turkish president’s palace, seen after their arrival in their home in Modiin, on November 18, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Her husband said the two were held alone at different prisons.

“We didn’t know how it would end… but we always believed we would get home and that the State of Israel wouldn’t leave us there alone,” he said.

Natali Oknin also said she had panic attacks in prison. “I didn’t have air to breathe… I felt that my world had ended. I didn’t think I would get home alive,” she said.

Asked if she would again visit Turkey, she responded: “I don’t intend to leave Israel in the near future!”

The Oknins had been freed from a Turkish prison earlier in the day and returned to Israel on a private jet sent by the government to bring them home.

Israel firmly and formally rejected the allegation that the Oknins, both of whom are bus drivers for the Egged company, were spies. Natali had featured in advertising campaigns for Egged over the years, and their work colleagues dismissed the notion that they were involved in espionage as ridiculous.

Natali and Mordy Oknin (C), an Israeli couple who had been jailed for photographing the Turkish president’s palace, arrive at their home in Modiin, on November 18, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

“We are both Egged drivers. We are proud of our work. I love my passengers and want to get back to work already. I want to get back to bus line 83, to all my passengers who know me and support me,” Natali said at a press conference on Thursday morning.

Related: Israeli couple arrive home after being held in Turkish prison as suspected spies

The development ended a saga that had involved concrete fears the pair would be in Turkish jail for many years.

There was no official statement from Turkish officials. Turkey’s private DHA news agency reported that a Turkish citizen who was arrested along with the couple was also released, in an apparent reference to their tour guide.

A transcript of a call between Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and the family on Thursday showed the couple’s joy and gratitude at returning home and being reunited with their children.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speak with Natali and Mordy Oknin after their return to Israel from Turkey, on November 18, 2021. (Haim Zach / GPO)

Earlier, a joint statement from Bennett and Lapid announcing their release thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“We thank the president of Turkey and his government for their cooperation and look forward to welcoming the couple back home,” the statement said, adding that President Isaac Herzog had also significantly contributed to efforts to end the saga.

Bennett spoke with Erdogan on Thursday by phone to thank him for the release of the couple.

The Foreign Ministry sent a jet, along with two senior consular officials, to bring the pair back and they arrived in Israel shortly after 6 a.m. They then headed to their home in Modiin, where they were greeted by a crowd of relatives and supporters, many of whom wore T-shirts printed with a photograph of the couple.

The couple was arrested in Istanbul last week after they photographed Erdogan’s palace in Istanbul while on tour and sent the photo to their family. Media reports have said thousands of tourists — including Israelis — regularly take photos of the palace.

Initial hopes that the misunderstanding would quickly be cleared up were dashed last week when a judge ordered them held for an additional 20 days on suspicion of espionage.

The husband and wife were held separately and granted intermittent access to an Israeli lawyer and Israeli consular officials.

The delicate diplomacy to secure their release was complicated because the two governments do not have ambassadors in each other’s countries due to longstanding tensions between Ankara and Jerusalem.

Tal Schneider and agencies contributed to this report.

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