Lawyer for Israeli couple detained for espionage in Turkey arrives in Istanbul

Family of Mordy and Natali Oknin, held for photographing Erdogan’s palace, launches fundraiser to cover legal costs

Mordy and Natali Oknin, arrested in Turkey for photographing Erdogan's palace. (Courtesy)
Mordy and Natali Oknin, arrested in Turkey for photographing Erdogan's palace. (Courtesy)

A lawyer for an Israeli couple detained in Turkey for taking photographs of the president’s palace arrived in Istanbul on Saturday morning to meet with local lawyers to try to secure their release.

Lawyer Nir Yaslovizh arrived in Turkey on behalf of the detainees’ family and will get to work as Israel’s consulate attempts to meet with the couple, Mordy and Natali Oknin.

Also on Saturday, the couple’s families launched a fundraising campaign to cover the costs of the legal battle.

According to a Channel 12 report Saturday, the families have been asked by Israeli authorities not to speak out about the affair in the meantime.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog spoke with the couple’s family Saturday, saying he was “convinced of their innocence,” and reiterating that the pair have no connection to any government security agencies.

“We’re taking action to return them home quickly,” he said, adding that Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was helping lead the effort.

Turkish authorities detained the Oknins on Thursday for photographing the palace of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The couple and their family insist they did not know it was illegal to do so.

A Turkish court on Friday extended their remand by 20 days, with local authorities saying they suspected the Oknins of espionage, as the episode appeared to be expanding into a diplomatic spat between the two countries. Israel has firmly and formally rejected the allegation that the couple, both of them bus drivers, are spies.

The decision to keep the couple behind bars surprised Israeli officials, who had been under the assumption that the court would order their immediate deportation from the country at Friday’s remand hearing. The detention of a tour guide who was arrested with the couple was extended until Sunday.

Mordy and Natali Oknin were arrested in Turkey for photographing Erdogan’s palace (Facebook)

Turkish prosecutors told the court that the couple is suspected of spying, claiming they not only photographed Erdogan’s palace but also adjacent security checkpoints and cameras, even supposedly highlighting them before sending the photos to a third party.

The couple, both of whom are Egged bus drivers, insists they only photographed the palace because they were enamored by it and sent the photos to their relatives, not knowing that doing so was illegal.

After taking the photo, Natali Oknin had sent it to a family WhatsApp group with the caption: “Such a nice house.”

“They are not spies,” a lawyer for the Israelis told the judge on Friday.

“All in all, this is a couple [who are] bus drivers. I ask that you release them immediately to their home in Israel,” the lawyer said. But the prosecution insisted to the contrary, and the judge ruled in the latter’s favor three hours later.

An unidentified source familiar with Turkey’s legal system told Channel 12, “It is clear that this was a political, rather than a legal, decision… It is clear that elements in Erdogan’s circle exerted pressure and briefed him as if these were Mossad agents on an Israeli mission.”

Yaslovizh, their Israeli lawyer, blasted the decision afterward in a statement, calling the ruling “bizarre and unacceptable.”

The family only found out that the two had been arrested when they did not return home on Tuesday as scheduled.

Lapid spoke with the couple’s family on Friday and updated them on efforts to release the couple, saying Israel had requested an urgent consular visit of the couple. In a statement, the ministry said the couple “do not work for any Israeli agency.”

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