Courts Will Decide Fate of Israeli Couple Detained Over Palace Photo, Turkish Minister Says

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Haaretz
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Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul.
Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul.Credit: baypinar/Shutterstock
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Haaretz

Turkey’s interior minister expects an Israeli couple detained in Turkey to face espionage charges and "the courts will decide" their fate, he said Tuesday in comments published in Turkish media.

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The couple, Natalie and Mordi Oknin, were arrested last week after photographing the Dolmabache Palace, which has not been used as an official residence for decades. According to the Cumhuriyet daily, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said they intentionally photographed the palace, prompting “intervention” by Turkey’s security agencies.

Natalie and Mordi Oknin in Istanbul, last week.Credit: Facebook

He said he expects them to be charged with “political and military espionage.” Soylu’s remarks were the first official comment on the Oknins’ case from the Turkish government, and did not mention any contact with Israeli authorities.

The comments alarmed decision-makers in Israel, partly because it suggests that the Turkish government does not currently plan to deport the couple. Turkey has also not made any diplomatic demands in exchange for their release, causing Israeli officials to make the assessment that the affair is far from over. 

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu agency reported that the Oknins photographed Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s residence from the Camlica Tower, a telecommunications tower in Istanbul with observation decks.

A recent order bars photographing the waterfront Dolmabahce Palace, which is also a popular tourist attraction. Anadolu said an employee tipped off the police after seeing the couple take pictures of Erdogan’s residence from the tower’s restaurant.

On Tuesday, the couple were visited by Israeli diplomatic officials. Israel's consul in Istanbul, Ronen Levy, visited Natalie Oknin, and the consul general in Istanbul, Ehud Eitam, visited Mordi Oknin, the Foreign Ministry said. The diplomats also met with prison authorities to ensure that the two are held in appropriate conditions. 

Israeli officials said the visits were a positive development, but one that did not point to the possibility of the couple being released soon. "We don't want to create excessive optimism," said one official. "The visits are very important, but the goal is to get them released and return them to Israel."

In an unusual move, President Isaac Herzog and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid released statements officially proclaiming that the couple were not working for any Israeli agency, while Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called them “two innocent civilians who were caught up in a complicated situation.”

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