The Woodrow Wilson Center, one of Washington’s best-known think tanks, is defending itself against charges that it played a role in the failed military coup against the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month.
The charges, played up prominently on Turkish newspapers in recent days, are a sign of a sharp deterioration in U.S.-Turkish relations in the wake of the coup. Although the Obama administration denounced the abortive military takeover, Mr. Erdogan and his supporters have been angered by criticism of the crackdown launched against coup supporters and the U.S. refusal to quickly deport a Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric that Ankara contends was behind the coup.
The failed takeover, which resulted in more than 200 deaths, coincided with a three-day conference for academics organized by the nonpartisan think tank on the island of Buyukada near Istanbul.
Wilson Center officials say the conference, organized by Middle East Program Director Henri Barkey, had been planned since last December in collaboration with Istanbul Kultur University and had noting to do with the attempted ouster of Mr. Erdogan.
Front-page accounts in pro-Erdogan newspapers over the weekend, complete with photos of Mr. Barkey and other conference attendees, suggested they were CIA agents who helped instigate the coup.
“There was nothing clandestine or sinister about the conference,” Haleh Esfandiari, a Wilson fellow, wrote in a post Tuesday for the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog. “… Mr. Barkey is a respected academic and is widely considered an expert on modern Turkey. He is not a spy, nor does he plan coups.”
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Ms. Esfandiari, who was detained in solitary confinement for more than three months by Iranian authorities in 2007 over espionage charges, said Turkey under Mr. Erdogan “has started down the slippery slope of its neighbors.”
The Center on Friday issued a statement denying any role in the coup and expressing concerns about reprisals about Turkish scholars who took part in the July 15 conference.
“There are probably thousands of international meetings in Turkey each year, organized by international non-governmental organizations or by Turkish institutions,” the statement said. “It would be a great loss to Turkey’s international reputation and to its contribution to global democratic civil society were Turkey’s own fine scholars to be excluded or at risk for participating in such valuable exchanges.”