Trump, Pence threaten Turkey with ‘large sanctions’ if Brunson not released

The US administration is upping the pressure on Ankara over its detention and ongoing trial of Andrew Brunson, an American Christian pastor who stands accused of espionage and terrorism in Turkey, where he has resided for the past 23 years tending a small church in İzmir.

“The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being. He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!” US President Donald Trump tweeted on Thursday morning, following up on a tweet by Vice President Mike Pence that said, “If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this innocent man of faith and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free.”

Pence had also warned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a speech in Washington earlier Thursday, saying Erdoğan should allow Brunson to return to the United States “now or be prepared to face the consequences.”

“This is a welcome first step, but it is not good enough,” Pence said during remarks at the close of a three-day conference on religious freedom at the State Department. “I know that his faith will sustain him, but it shouldn’t have to. Pastor Andrew Brunson deserves to be free,” The Washington Post reported.

The İzmir 2nd High Criminal Court on Wednesday ruled to move Brunson from pretrial detention, in which he has been held since October 2016, to house arrest in İzmir but barred him from leaving the premises or the country.

Turkey on Thursday slammed remarks by Trump after he threatened the country with sanctions unless Ankara released Brunson, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

Erdoğan’s spokesperson İbrahim Kalın on Thursday condemned President Trump’s threats of imposing sanctions on the country unless Ankara releases the detained American pastor. In a statement Kalın said, “It is not possible to accept threatening language used towards our country, which is a NATO ally.”

“The US administration, which has never taken a step against FETÖ, should know that it cannot get any result by threatening Turkey using a matter that is being handled by the independent Turkish judiciary as an excuse.”

“FETÖ” is a derogatory term coined by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to refer to the Gülen movement.

Kalın also called on the US administration to “review [its] manners immediately” before relations between the two countries deteriorate any further.

“No one dictates to Turkey. We will never tolerate threats from anybody. The rule of law is for everyone, no exceptions,” Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu tweeted. Çavuşoğlu later spoke with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the phone, according to Turkish diplomatic sources. No further details were released.

In a statement Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said: “Turkey is a sovereign state with a deep-rooted democratic tradition and political order which upholds the supremacy of law. No one can give orders to Turkey and threaten our country. The rhetoric of threat against Turkey is unacceptable.”

Aksoy claimed that Turkey has displayed necessary political will and done its part to improve relations with the US. “It is impossible to accept the US Administration’s threatening messages, which totally disregard our alliance and friendly relations,” he added.

Aksoy called on the US “to leave aside this wrongful rhetoric and come back to the existing framework of constructive dialogue that we have been engaged in so far,” and added, “With regard to the Brunson case, necessary information has been provided to our US counterparts on various occasions and it has been clearly expressed that this issue is totally within the competence of the independent Turkish judiciary.”

The same court last week had ruled to keep Brunson, who faces 35 years, in jail, setting the next hearing for Oct. 12.

Meanwhile, the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations during its meeting on Thursday passed a bill restricting US loans to Turkey “until the Turkish government stops the arbitrary detention of US citizens and embassy employees.”

The bill refers to US citizens including Andrew Brunson, the pastor and long-term resident in Turkey who has become one of many points of friction straining bilateral relations since being arrested on terror charges in 2016.

“We never wanted this bill to be necessary, but we warned the Turkish government that there would be consequences if it did not cease its unjust detention and harassment of US citizens and locally employed embassy staff,” US Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Senator Bob Corker said in a statement on the committee website.

“The Turkish government’s decision to move Pastor Brunson from prison to house arrest makes clear that the government has the agency to immediately, unconditionally release him,” US Senator Bob Menendez said in the same statement.

“This week’s long overdue development in Pastor Brunson’s case is not enough –- the United States also insists on the release of our locally employed staff, and an end to the harassment and targeting of US citizens. We must continue to move forward with the Turkey International Financial Institutions Act until Turkey ceases the egregious policy of detention and harassment of US citizens on specious grounds for political gain,” Menendez said.

According to the proposed legislation, the United States executive of the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) will oppose all future loans to Turkey, with the exception of those for humanitarian purposes, by the EBRD and International Financial Corporation (IFC), until the country is “no longer arbitrarily detaining or denying freedom of movement to United States citizens (including dual citizens) or locally employed staff members of the United States mission to Turkey.”

The blockage of new loans would prove a blow to Turkey, which was the largest EBRD borrower with new loans worth $1,8 billion in 2017, and the second largest borrower from the IFC with $927 million in long term loans during the same time period.

The bill for sanctions against Turkey comes after months of bipartisan efforts by US senators and members of the House of Representatives to toughen the response to Turkey’s imprisonment of Brunson and US citizens as well as its purchase of a Russian S-400 missile defence system.

Trump on July 18 urged Turkish President Erdoğan to release Brunson, who has been in prison in Turkey for nearly two years, calling his continued detention a “total disgrace.”

“A total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected U.S. Pastor, Andrew Brunson, from prison. He has been held hostage far too long. @RT_Erdogan should do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father. He has done nothing wrong, and his family needs him!” Trump tweeted.

Erdoğan in September had called on Washington to swap Brunson for Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Muslim cleric living in self-imposed exile in the US who Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government accuse of orchestrating a failed coup in 2016.

Prosecutors accuse Brunson of activities on behalf of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as well as the group inspired by Gülen. The Gülen movement strongly denies any involvement in the abortive putsch.

Brunson, a North Carolina native, has been in custody since October 2016 after he and his wife were detained on immigration violation charges. At the time, the Brunsons were running a small Christian church in İzmir. They had lived in Turkey for 23 years. (SCF with turkishminute.com)

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