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UAE releases Turkish businessman after more than three years in custody

Businessman and aid worker Mehmet Ali Ozturk tells MEE he is 'very happy to be back in my country' after being caught up in a case denounced as political
Mehmet Ali Ozturk at home with his family after three years in Emirati detention (Handout)
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The United Arab Emirates on Monday night freed Turkish businessman and aid worker Mehmet Ali Ozturk, who had been kept in Emirati custody since February 2018.

Ozturk told Middle East Eye on Tuesday that he was released as part of an annual pardon issued by UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

“I’m very happy to be back in my country, and be healthy and with my family,” he said.

The decision to pardon Ozturk, who was imprisoned on charges of terrorism in December 2018 while he was visiting Dubai for a food fair, came after Turkey and the UAE decided to repair their relations after nearly 10 years of antagonisms.

A senior Turkish official told MEE last week that they were expecting Ozturk’s release after UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara.

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Ozturk was accused of funnelling money to hardline Syrian rebels. Bizarrely, he was charged with entering Syria without permission from UAE authorities. Syria and the UAE are around 2,000km apart.

Ozturk's supporters say he is the victim of severe violations of human rights and disregard of the rule of law, and his case illustrates how regular citizens can be caught up in state rivalries.

Several Turkish officials told MEE last year that the charges brought against Ozturk were baseless.

"How could you sentence someone for life without concrete evidence?" asked a Turkish official familiar with the case. "This is a political case."

Ozturk was detained by the UAE's notorious State Security Directorate on 20 February 2018.

In a phone call to his wife, an audio recording of which was obtained by MEE last year, the businessman said he had been kept in solitary confinement for 30 days, tortured, and interrogated about Erdogan.

Emirati officials also began putting pressure on Ozturk's son Abdullah, who was studying in the US at the time. Their suspicions and allegations prompted an FBI inquiry, and though the agency found no wrongdoing, Abdullah nevertheless decided to drop out of university and head back to Turkey.