Israel urges Turkey to free couple held for spying over palace photos

People walk near the a gate of Dolmabahce Palace, in Istanbul, Turkey, on 10 November 2021 (Altan Gocher/GocherImagery/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
A lawyer for the Oknins said they had taken photos of the Ottoman-era Dolmabahce Palace from a ferry

Israel has urged Turkey to release an Israeli couple charged with espionage for allegedly taking photos of the presidential residence in Istanbul.

Natalie and Mordi Oknin, who are bus drivers from Modiin, were arrested last week after being reported by staff at a restaurant in the Camlica Tower. A judge ordered that they should be remanded in custody pending trial.

Their Israeli lawyer called the charges “groundless” and Israel insisted they did not work for any Israeli agency.

“These are two innocent civilians who have been mistakenly caught up in a complex situation,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday. “I spoke yesterday with the family and we are doing everything to resolve the issue.”

Relations between Israel and Turkey have been strained since a deadly 2010 Israeli raid on a Turkish ship trying to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

A drone photo shows the Camlica Tower in Istanbul, Turkey on 23 September 2021
The couple were allegedly spotted taking photos from a restaurant in the Camlica Tower

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported on Friday that an Israeli couple and a Turkish citizen were arrested after staff at the restaurant of the 369m-tall (1,211ft) Camlica TV and Radio Tower told the police that they had been taking pictures of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s residence.

Mr and Mrs Oknin were questioned by prosecutors before being referred to a court, where a judge charged them with “political and military espionage” and extended their detention for at least 20 days.

An Israeli lawyer for the couple, Nir Yaslovitzh, rejected the allegations, telling Israel’s Haaretz newspaper that “their only offence involves their photographing Erdogan’s palace during an innocent boat trip”.

He identified the building as the waterfront Dolmabahce Palace. It has not been used as a presidential residence for decades, although parts of it are reportedly used as a presidential working office. The current residence, the Huber Mansion, is located elsewhere in the city.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog said he was “convinced” of the couple’s innocence and emphasised that they did “not work for an Israeli agency”.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid tweeted that Israeli officials were working “around the clock” to secure Mr and Mrs Oknin’s release.

The foreign ministry also announced that Turkish authorities had agreed to allow Israeli diplomats to carry out an urgent consular visit.

Last month, Turkish media reported that 15 men had been arrested by Turkish authorities on suspicion of spying for Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency. A former Mossad deputy director denied they were Israeli spies.

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