Newspaper removes op-ed claiming Turkey asked US to halt Halkbank probes in exchange for pastor Brunson

The pro-government Hürriyet daily on Saturday removed from its website a column claiming that two separate investigations targeting Turkey’s Halkbank are being conducted in the US and that Ankara asked Washington to halt the investigations in exchange for the release of American pastor Andrew Brunson.

Cansu Çamlıbel, the paper’s Washington correspondent, wrote a detailed account of how the Turkish government and the Donald Trump administration negotiated a bargain over the release of Brunson, who had been jailed by Turkish legal authorities over alleged ties to the Gülen movement and the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

According to Çamlıbel, Ankara’s ask from the Trump administration concerned the case against Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a former Halkbank executive who was convicted by a US court in January of conspiring to violate US sanctions on Iran through his position at the bank.

After the conclusion of the Atilla trial, observers were expecting that an exorbitant fine would be levied against Halkbank.

However, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last year had publicly announced that in exchange for Pastor Brunson’s release, Turkey demanded the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Muslim cleric living in self-imposed exile in the US who is accused by Turkish authorities of masterminding a coup attempt on July 15, 2016, although he denies any involvement.

Çamlıbel claimed that Washington gave a green light to minimizing the fine on Halkbank and to sending Atilla to Turkey to serve out the remainder of his 32-month prison sentence.

According to Çamlıbel, Ankara insisted Washington halt two investigations targeting Halkbank, one by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which eventually imposed sanctions on two Turkish ministers over Brunson, and one by the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which had conducted the Atilla investigation.

In the course of the bargain between the two allies, Çamlıbel argued that when President Trump saw the Turkish court decided to put pastor Brunson under house arrest instead of freeing him after Israel released and deported Ebru Özkan, a Turkish national charged with supporting terrorism, to Turkey due to a US request, he decided to burn the bridges between Washington and Ankara.

“At this point, it would be more difficult for Ankara to release pastor Brunson,” Çamlıbel wrote, adding that more sanctions on Turkey were ready to be signed by Trump.

She also stressed that misunderstandings between the parties occurred often since in addition to official conversations, back channels used by certain individuals between the two allies had created a polluted atmosphere for the bilateral relationship.

Turkey is ranked 157th among 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). If Turkey falls two more places, it will make it to the list of countries on the blacklist, which have the poorest record in press freedom.

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 237 journalists and media workers were in jail as of August 6, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 170 were under arrest pending trial while only 67 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 144 journalists who are living in exile or remain at large in Turkey.

Detaining tens of thousands of people over alleged links to the Gülen movement, the government also closed down some 200 media outlets, including Kurdish news agencies and newspapers, after a coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016. (SCF with turkishminute.com)

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