President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s cabinet discussed expelling ambassadors from the United States and nine other nations on Monday, a move threatening the deepest diplomatic rift between Turkey and major allies in nearly 20 years.
Erdogan said during the weekend he had ordered the envoys to be declared persona non grata for seeking the release of prominent philanthropist Osman Kavala, 64, detained for four years on charges of financing protests and involvement in an attempted coup.
The order has not yet been implemented but could be formally approved at Monday’s meeting.
The envoys from Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand and the US called last week for a just and speedy resolution to Kavala’s case, and for his “urgent release”.
The 10 ambassadors represent NATO allies, trade partners, and members of the European Union. Ankara is an EU candidate country, but membership talks have been practically frozen for years.
“The whole situation is a serious matter but we understand that the concerned countries have not yet been notified about any action,” said a spokesperson for the European Commission, the EU executive.
Erdogan “welcomed” statements on Monday by several Western embassies – including the US – that they abide by a diplomatic convention not to interfere in a host country’s internal affairs, state-run Anadolu news agency said.
The statements were made almost simultaneously on Twitter as Erdogan entered the cabinet meeting to discuss the issue.
“The United States notes that it maintains compliance with Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations,” the US Embassy said on Twitter.
Canada, the Netherlands, and New Zealand each sent a similar message, while Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland re-tweeted the US message. There was no apparent statement from the German or French embassies.
A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Berlin, “We take note of the statements of the Turkish President with concern and also with incomprehension.”
The Turkish lira surged on expectations that Erdogan was ready to walk back from his threat to expel the 10 Western ambassadors.
The lira pulled back from a historic low and was trading up half a percent against the dollar on expectations Turkey’s president would announce a compromise solution in a television address later on Monday.
Sinan Ulgen, a former diplomat and chairman of the Istanbul based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, told Al Jazeera the foreign ministry was probably trying to find a way out of the crisis that kept Erdogan happy.
“[If the expulsion happens] we will see more countries pulling their ambassadors from Turkey because there will be a drive to show solidarity with France and Germany from more EU countries,” he said.
The diplomats were interfering with Turkey’s judiciary, but the issue was not just about the Kavala case, it is also about Ankara refusing to implement a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision, Ulgen added.
The ECHR said in December 2019 there was no reasonable suspicion that he committed an offence and ruled his detention had been intended to silence him.
Kavala, a businessman and contributor to civil society groups, is jailed for allegedly financing nationwide protests in 2013 and involvement in a failed coup in 2016. His trial continues but he has denied the charges.
Rights groups have said his case is emblematic of a crackdown on dissent under Erdogan, and Kavala said on Friday he would no longer attend his trial, as a fair hearing was impossible after recent comments by the president.
Alper Coskun, a former Turkish diplomat and now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, said Turkey’s constitution is clear in requiring compliance with the ECHR, but countries critical of Ankara could have chosen public methods of communicating their concerns.
“This has a result that it produces overwhelming anger in Turkey that politicians can now capitalise on … There are enough challenges with Turkey as it is. Both Turkey and its friends need to see that. Mutual alienation is unhelpful,” Coskun told Al Jazeera.
Parliament speaker Mustafa Sentop said Turkey’s constitution banned discussion of ongoing court cases, including by Turkish politicians in parliament, and the envoys’ statement marked a “clear and disrespectful” interference.
“Those who are evaluating the stance our president has put forth on this issue as an unprecedented one must see … that the impudence shown by the ambassadors is also unprecedented,” he told a forum in the northwestern province of Tekirdag.
Kavala’s wife described her husband’s imprisonment as inexplicable on Monday.
“There’s no way this situation can be explained either logically or legally,” Ayse Bugra said in comments published on Halk TV’s website.
Bugra, a professor of political economy, said the president’s comments, in which he compared her husband’s imprisonment to the treatment of “bandits, murderers and terrorists” in other countries, contradicted the principle of judicial independence.
As a member of the Council of Europe, Turkey is bound by the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. Bugra said she regarded the ambassadors’ statement as an effort to curtail possible action against Turkey.
“The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers said it would impose sanctions if Osman is not released at the end of November,” she said. “This is something serious. I interpret the envoys’ initiative as a well-intentioned attempt to prevent things from becoming this way.”
Al Jazeera’s Umar Farooq contributed to this report from Istanbul