Plight of Frenchman Serving Long Jail Term Causes Concern Amid Bilateral Spat

By Fayçal Benhassain | April 14, 2021 | 8:11pm EDT
French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a 2019 NATO summit. (Photo by Christian Hartmann/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a 2019 NATO summit. (Photo by Christian Hartmann/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

( – The plight of a Jewish Frenchman jailed in Turkey is causing dismay in France, where many see the incident to be linked to the poor relations between the two countries’ governments.

The case of Fabien Azoulay, 43, came to light in recent days, when family members and their lawyers urged the French foreign ministry to take action to have him transferred to France to complete his sentence.

Azoulay, who holds both French and U.S. citizenship, was arrested at an Istanbul hotel in 2017 after placing an online order for a stimulant which he claims he did not know was illegal in Turkey. (Considered unsafe in the U.S. and elsewhere, Gamma butyrolactone’s legal status varies between countries.)

In February 2018, after a trial lasting about 15 minutes, he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment. On appeal, the sentence was reduced to 16 years and eight months.

Jailed in an Istanbul prison and later in a prison in the city of Gerisun in Turkey’s northeast, Azoulay complained of overcrowding, being forced to join Muslim prayers, experiencing physical violence and witnessing the murder of another prisoner.

When inmates learned he was gay, he was assaulted, and one inmate threw boiling water at him in the middle of the night, causing second-degree burns, according to his lawyers.

He submitted a request to be transferred to France in May 2019, but six months later the request was denied.

One of his lawyers, Carole-Olivia Montenot, said the French foreign ministry initially asked the team to keep a low profile while it worked to have him transferred to France. Diplomats worried that publicity would be counterproductive.

“We contacted the ministry again last March to ask about the discussions between the two countries on Azoulay's incarceration that started in 2018 and his transfer,” she said in an interview. “But as we didn’t get any answers, we decided to go public.”

Montenot said her client was being intimidated and threatened.

“His fellow prisoners summon him to convert to Islam and to say five prayers a day,” she said. “He is also harassed because of his sexual orientation.”

“The ministry told us to let diplomacy work and assured us that they were doing everything to ensure that the transfer procedure would be accepted as soon as possible.”

“I don’t really blame Turkey but France seems unable to give us any satisfactory response about our client’s repatriation to finish his sentence here,” Montenot said.

She pointed out that Azoulay holds American citizenship too, and said his parents had recently requested U.S. intervention.

“We think that U.S. intervention could be very helpful,” Montenot said.

Although Azoulay’s conviction and sentence predated the deterioration of relations between Ankara and Paris, Turkey’s Islamist government does have a history of using imprisoned foreign citizens for political purposes, with American pastor Andrew Brunson, who was accused of aiding terrorism, a case in point.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been on bad terms since last fall, when Erdogan questioned Macrron’s sanity over his public statements about Islamist separatism and the need to restructure Islam in France.

Disputes in the eastern Mediterranean, the conflict in Libya, and clashes in the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region in the Caucasus, are some of the issues affecting relations between the two governments.

Turkey’s ambassador in France, Ali Onaner, told French television that Azoulay has been transferred to another prison, near the Black Sea, “where he is completely safe with better detention conditions as he meets fewer people.”

He added that a transfer to France could take as long as three years to arrange, given procedures in international conventions to which France and Turkey adhere.

“Macron must not let Azoulay be jailed by our enemies,” Jordan Bardella, vice-president of far-right National Rally, said this week. “He must ask the Turkish president to let this Frenchman be repatriated.”

“France must impose diplomatic and economic sanctions against Turkey and stop being walked over by Erdogan, who uses our weaknesses to install political Islam in the country,” he added, in reference to Turkish government-backed institutions that operate mosques for the Turkish diaspora in France.

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