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U.S. Air Force Secretary Trusts Turkey on Who 'Needs to be Punished' for Coup

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ARLINGTON, Va. — The secretary of the U.S. Air Force told reporters Wednesday that she would “of course defer to the government of Turkey as to who needs to be arrested” after a coup attempt followed by mass roundups of the Islamist government’s perceived political enemies.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also issued an ultimatum against the U.S. as his government seeks extradition of a onetime ally-turned-opponent who lives in Pennsylvania. “Sooner or later, the U.S. will make a choice: either Turkey or FETO,” he said, referring to the movement led by Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan quickly claimed Gulen orchestrated the July 15 coup attempt.

At a Pentagon press conference on the state of the Air Force, Secretary Deborah Lee James was asked about her confidence in being able to continue operations at Incirlik Air Base given the fallout from the failed coup attempt.

“There certainly has been a lot of turmoil, but we certainly condemn in the strongest possible terms the attempted coup,” James said. “We’re beyond that now; of course, many thousands of people have been arrested and we of course defer to the government of Turkey as to who needs to be arrested, who needs to be punished for this action.”

Turkish officials said Thursday that 35,022 people have been arrested in association with the coup. Of those, 17,740 have been formally arrested, 11,597 were released, and 5,685 remain in custody without charge.

Amnesty International reported last month that the arrested include soldiers deemed loyal to the secular state as well as judges, prosecutors, police and civil servants, both men and women. Those rounded up have faced rape, starvation and torture behind bars, Amnesty said. Thousands of teachers have had their licenses revoked, and media outlets and journalists not viewed favorably by the regime have also been targeted.

Asked if the U.S. is concerned about the high number of people rounded up for supposed coup involvement, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau told reporters Thursday, “I’m not an intelligence agent. I’m not on the ground. I’m not a member of the government of Turkey.”

“As they continue to work though this, I’d refer you there. But again, I would reiterate what we’ve said before, is we would expect all these investigations, fully understanding that they need to hold those accountable for this very grave act, needs to be done with due process and in accordance with international norms and meeting the very high level of democratic standards that’s enshrined in their own constitution,” Trudeau said.

Erdogan wants to reinstate the death penalty to punish his enemies, but the European Union has warned Turkey that such a move would kill the country’s drive to become an EU member state.

Pressed again on the volume of detentions, Trudeau replied, “I’m actually not aware of all of the charges that have been filed against the number of people you’re speaking about, so it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to speak to.”

As far as Erdogan’s demand for Gulen’s extradition, Trudeau said it’s under consideration. “Sometimes it can be months, it can be years,” she said of such requests. “I’m not going to put a timeline on that.”

The Air Force secretary stressed that “Incirlik is a key location” and “Turkey overall is a very, very important ally.”

“I would simply report within the first week or so, I had the opportunity to speak with the base commander and he reported to me that our team at Incirlik had been treated with the utmost of professionalism,” James said. “In fact, we spoke to one of the even higher level commanders just the other day and he reiterated that point that that has been ongoing.”

“Turkey has been a good ally. They have an effective air force, but of course it’s concerning because with so many members of the leadership gone, it’s going to take them time to grow new leaders and replace — so it remains to be seen what happens next,” she added. “But obviously they’re our ally, we stand with them, they’re an effective air force and Incirlik is an important location for our joint fight.”