Despite the fact that the United States and Turkey have reportedly agreed to deal diplomatically with a row over imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday that “Brunson needs to come home. As do all the Americans being held by the Turkish government” and warned Turkey of serious consequences if the pastor is not released, according to a report by Deutsche Welle (DW) on Friday.
Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu had talks in Singapore on Friday on the sidelines of a regional summit and agreed to continue to try to resolve bilateral issues between the two countries.
Washington imposed sanctions on two Turkish ministers over the imprisonment of Brunson, who Turkish authorities accuse of espionage and backing terror groups. The 50-year-old Brunson was arrested in December 2016 following an abortive military coup on charges of “committing crimes on behalf of terrorist groups without membership in them” and espionage.
Although he was recently released into house arrest, Brunson faces a prison sentence of up to 35 years if he is convicted on both counts at the end of his ongoing trial. Brunson has lived in Turkey for 23 years and ran the İzmir Resurrection Church.
“They [Pompeo and Çavuşoğlu] spoke about a number of issues, and had a constructive conversation,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Friday.
Pompeo told reporters traveling with him to Singapore that the US had put Turkey on notice “that the clock has run and it is time for Pastor Brunson to be returned.”
“I hope they’ll see this for what it is, a demonstration that we’re very serious,” Pompeo said of the sanctions. “We consider this one of the many issues that we have with the Turks.”
“Brunson needs to come home. As do all the Americans being held by the Turkish government. Pretty straightforward. They’ve been holding these folks for a long time. These are innocent people,” he added.
A case in point is that of Serkan Gölge, a NASA scientist with dual US-Turkish citizenship who in February was convicted on terrorism charges that the US says are “without credible evidence” and sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison.
Hamza Uluçay, a 37-year veteran of the US diplomatic service, has been jailed since February 2017 based on “evidence” that dollar bills found in his home constituted proof of his involvement in the abortive coup.
Twenty-year State Department veteran Metin Topuz was likewise detained for allegedly attempting to overthrow the Turkish government and suspected links to the Gülen movement.
Nazmi Mete Cantürk, who is charged with espionage and attempting to overthrow the government, has been under house arrest since January.
“These are innocent people,” Pompeo said and added that “Pastor Brunson is an innocent pastor, and they need to let him return to the United States, and they need to let our locally employed folks — everyone needs to be let out. That’s the message. We are going to work to see if we can find a way forward — I am hopeful.”
Pompeo also said the Turkish government is aware that US patience with Turkey over the Brunson case is wearing thin.
But Çavuşoğlu insisted that US threats and sanctions would not be effective. “We have said from the start that the other side’s threatening language and sanctions will not get any result. We repeated this today,” Çavuşoğlu told reporters in Singapore after his meeting with Pompeo.
Meanwhile, Brunson reportedly feels happy to be with his family while under house arrest instead of being kept behind bars, the Hürriyet Daily News reported on Friday, citing his lawyer.
“He is pretty happy to be in his home [in İzmir] rather than in prison. He said that. However, after the rejection of our application to lift the decision of house arrest, we will continue to pursue our demands for his release,” Brunson’s lawyer İsmail Cem Halavut said. “He is happy to be with his family,” he added.
It was also reported on Friday that Turkish counterterrorism prosecutors have widened the investigation into the activities of Brunson to include his wife, Norine, and two retired US officials.
According to a report by pro-government Sabah daily, Norine Brunson, former CIA employee Graham Fuller and Kenneth Abney, a retired member of the US Special Forces, are among 66 people included in the new probe. The daily provided no details concerning why Brunson’s wife was part of the investigation.
Abney met with Brunson on three separate occasions, according to the newspaper. He now works at a church in Pennsylvania, close to the facility where Fethullah Gülen lives, Sabah said.
On Wednesday, the White House announced it was imposing sanctions on Turkey’s Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül and Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu for their role in Brunson’s detention. “We believe he [Brunson] is a victim of unfair and unjust attention by the government of Turkey,” US Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said.
Washington has maintained that there is no credible evidence to support the charges brought against Brunson. The Trump administration is also seeking the release of three locally employed embassy staff detained in Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said that he will not be swayed by sanctions. However, he has indicated that he would swap Brunson for Fethullah Gülen, a US-based Turkish Muslim scholar who has been accused by the Erdoğan regime of plotting the 2016 coup attempt.
Turkey’s lira has fallen to a record low as US sanctions and the effects of an overly politicized monetary policy kick in. “President Erdoğan’s virtual economics may be about to hit a wall of hard truths,” wrote DW.
The Turkish lira fell to a rate of 5,1 against the dollar in early Friday trading, breaking the symbolic resistance threshold of 5 for the first time. The currency has lost 4 percent against the dollar over the last week and is down about 36 percent this year, according to FactSet.
Hundreds of thousands of people in Turkey have been the subject of legal proceedings in the last two years on charges of membership in the Gülen movement since the coup attempt in July 2016, a Turkish Justice Ministry official told a symposium on July 19, 2018.
“Legal proceedings have been carried out against 445,000 members of this organisation,” Turkey’s pro-government Islamist news agency İLKHA quoted Turkish Justice Ministry Deputy Undersecretary Ömer Faruk Aydıner as saying.
Turkey survived a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that killed 249 people. Immediately after the putsch, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government along with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pinned the blame on the Gülen movement.
Fethullah Gülen, who inspired the movement, strongly denied having any role in the failed coup and called for an international investigation into it, but President Erdoğan — calling the coup attempt “a gift from God” — and the government initiated a widespread purge aimed at cleansing sympathizers of the movement from within state institutions, dehumanizing its popular figures and putting them in custody.
Turkey has suspended or dismissed more than 150,000 judges, teachers, police and civil servants since July 15. On December 13, 2017 the Justice Ministry announced that 169,013 people have been the subject of legal proceedings on coup charges since the failed coup.
Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu announced on April 18, 2018 that the Turkish government had jailed 77,081 people between July 15, 2016 and April 11, 2018 over alleged links to the Gülen movement.