Turkish Scholar Won't Face Lawsuit From Religious Group

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By Sara Merken

July 5 — A lawsuit against a prominent Turkish scholar for allegedly instructing Turkish officials to arrest and detain 40 individuals with opposing religious views was dismissed June 29 ( Ates v. Gulen, 2016 BL 209115, M.D. Pa., No. 3:15-cv-02354, 6/19/16 ).

There was no jurisdiction under the Alien Tort Statute because the conduct alleged didn't “touch and concern” the U.S., the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania said.

Further, the Act of State doctrine—which protects the executive branch's autonomy in making foreign policy decisions—barred the claims, Judge Robert D. Mariani's opinion said.

The Muslim scholar and preacher, Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, allegedly instructed a network of police, prosecutors, and judges to plant evidence, wiretap phones and use fraudulent warrants to search the homes of members of the Doğan Movement, a religious faction with opposing views to Gülen and his 10 million followers, the complaint said.

Gülen's website says that he and members of the Gülen Movement support “interfaith and intercultural dialogue, science, democracy and spirituality and oppose violence and turning religion into a political ideology.”

Touch and Concern

The plaintiffs, three members of the Doğan Movement, alleged that Gülen published a speech on a Turkish website and approved content on two episodes of a nationally-broadcast television show to advise the officials on what actions to take, the complaint said.

But the court found that Gülen's speech didn't, on its face, have any direct instruction to detain Doğan members. The plaintiffs provided only “circumstantial and tenuous allegations,” and the broad assertions didn't point to specific parts of the speech that conveyed instructions to Turkish officials, the court said.

There wasn't subject matter jurisdiction over the ATS claims because the allegations didn't demonstrate conduct that “touches and concerns” U.S. territory, the court said.

All the relevant actions took place in Turkey, and the only tie to the U.S. is that Gülen recorded the video speech in Pennsylvania, where he lives, the court said.

The plaintiffs' claims were also barred by the Act of State doctrine, which “requires evaluation whenever adjudication of a controversy might hinder the executive department in the conduct of foreign relations,” the court said.

“Such an invitation by Plaintiffs to sit in judgment of the decisions of Turkey's political, law enforcement, and judicial officials also invokes exactly the type of foreign-policy determinations that the Supreme Court has warned federal courts to avoid,” it said.

The court declined to address a First Amendment argument.

Courts Too Restrictive on ATS?

Courts are “way too restrictive when it comes to the Alien Tort Statute,” Patrick J. Egan, attorney for the plaintiffs with Fox Rothschild LLP, told Bloomberg BNA.

“We are disappointed because we feel like the individuals have valid claims and they suffered very significant harm as a result of what happened,” he said.

But Gülen's counsel disagreed. “This decision brings to an appropriate end a lawsuit that should never have been filed,” attorney Michael Miller said in a statement published June 29 by Steptoe and Johnson LLP.

Fox Rothschild LLP and Amsterdam & Partners LLP represented the Doğan Movement members.

Steptoe & Johnson LLP represented Gülen.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sara Merken in Washington at smerken@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bna.com

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