ISTANBUL Lawyers hired by the Turkish government have filed a civil suit against a political enemy of President Tayyip Erdogan in a U.S. court alleging human rights abuses, in the first such action against the U.S.-based cleric outside Turkey.
Robert Amsterdam, founder of UK-based firm Amsterdam and Partners LLP, told Reuters the suit, dated Dec. 7, had been filed in a U.S. district court in Pennsylvania, where Erdogan's former ally, cleric Fethullah Gulen, has lived since 1999.
The suit underscores Erdogan's widening campaign against Gulen, whom he describes as a terrorist and accuses of building a "parallel structure" within the police and judiciary to topple the government, something Gulen denies.
This year the government seized the assets of Islamic lender Bank Asya and took over at least 22 other firms with ties to Gulen, including some opposition media outlets. The crackdown has helped revive fears about press freedom in Turkey.
The U.S. suit alleges Gulen ordered his followers in the police to unlawfully arrest and detain members of a rival Islamic movement in 2009, according to a copy of the complaint seen by Reuters.
The suit names three plaintiffs, individuals, not widely known, who have criticized Gulen. The Turkish government, though hiring the lawyers, is not named as a plaintiff.
The suit alleges that, on the cleric's orders, his followers "illegally planted evidence, fabricated search warrants, secured illegal wiretaps and ultimately arrested plaintiffs without any legal basis".
Amsterdam, of Amsterdam and Partners LLP, told Reuters the claims against Gulen and 50 of his unnamed and unidentified followers were being brought under the Alien Tort Statue, an 18th century law that has been used to try human rights cases from around the world in U.S. courts.
"We’re suing them...in respect to these false imprisonments. Mr Gulen has a long history in Turkey of engaging his followers aggressively and falsely imprisoning hundreds of people," he said.
The suit, seeking punitive damages, said Gulen has up to 10 million followers worldwide and is estimated to control at least $25 billion in assets. It says he controls dozens of business entities and more than 120 charter schools in the United States.
Gulen is facing a similar suit in a Turkish court, accusing him of plotting against a rival religious group by fabricating evidence and charges. He also faces domestic charges of trying to overthrow the government.
Erdogan, a pious Muslim, was formerly a Gulen ally. The two publicly fell out after police and prosecutors Erdogan saw as sympathetic to the cleric opened a corruption investigation that touched on the Turkish leader's inner circle in 2013.
Erdogan has since moved to purge the police and judiciary of what he sees as a wide network of conspirators.
The government hired Amsterdam and Partners this year to look into Gulen's "Hizmet" (Service) movement and its activities worldwide.
Amsterdam told Reuters that several Turkish teachers in the United States had contacted him, complaining they had been given orders to recruit students for the movement. He said the testimonies could trigger fresh court cases against Gulen and his followers.
Gulen denies all accusations that he aggressively recruits followers.
(Editing by David Dolan; editing by Ralph Boulton)