A Turkish court on Friday extended by 20 days the remand of an Israeli couple detained for photographing the palace of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with local authorities saying they suspected them of espionage, as the episode appeared to be expanding into a diplomatic spat between the frequently sparring allies.
The Foreign Minister Yair Lapid spoke with the 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.”
The decision to keep Mordy and Natali Oknin 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 the tour guide who was arrested with the couple was extended until Sunday.
Turkish prosecutors told the court that the couple is suspected of espionage, 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 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 is illegal.
“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.
Photos of #Erdogan's extravagant 'summer palace' revealed amid mass poverty
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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.”
The defendants’ lawyer, Nir Yaslovizh, blasted the decision afterward in a statement, calling the ruling “bizarre and unacceptable.”
Relatives of the Oknins in Modiin were hit hard by the news after being assured that the episode would come to an end on Friday.
“The atmosphere at home is very bad. The little boy keeps asking, ‘Where is Mom?'” Natali Oknin’s brother Eran Perry told Channel 12. He called on Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to intervene on his relatives’ behalf.
The family only found out that the two had been arrested when they did not return home on Tuesday as scheduled.
“These are simple and innocent people who photographed the palace from a distance. Google has better photos. It is immediately clear that there is no espionage here,” a source quoted by Ynet said.
After taking the photo, the woman had sent it to a family WhatsApp group with the caption: “Such a nice house.”