Turkey never used Brunson as a bargaining chip, claims Turkish President Erdoğan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan broke his silence about threats of sanctions made by US President Donald Trump and claimed that Turkey never used jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson as a bargaining chip, the neo-nationalist Sözcü daily reported on Sunday.

Erdoğan told reporters during a tour of African countries that Turkey and the US have been negotiating various legal issues, including the extradition of US-based Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, and the case of Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a Turkish banker sentenced to 32 months in prison in the US for his part as former deputy general manager of Turkish state-owned Halkbank in a complex scheme to evade US sanctions on Iran.

“We never used Brunson as a bargaining chip,” Erdoğan claimed. “Regarding the case of Brunson, considering his health problems, the judiciary in Turkey with good intentions decided to move him to house arrest. Instead of respecting the decision of the judiciary, they make this an issue for imposing sanctions on Turkey,” Erdoğan added, noting that Turkey would not retreat from its position as a result of sanction threats.

However, after Washington called for Brunson’s release, Erdoğan suggested last year the pastor’s fate could be linked to that of Fethullah Gülen, whose extradition Ankara has repeatedly sought to face charges over a coup attempt.

Erdoğan referred to Washington in a speech to police officers last year in which he said: “Give us the pastor back,’ they say. You have one pastor as well. Give him [Gülen] to us. … Then we will try him [Brunson] and give him to you. The [pastor] we have is on trial. Yours is not — he is living in Pennsylvania. You can easily give him to us. You can hand him over right away.”

The idea of a swap was brushed off by Washington. US officials have said the Turkish government has failed to provide sufficient evidence to justify Gülen’s extradition, raising frustration in Erdoğan’s autocratic regime in Ankara.

Erdoğan also denied allegations of a US-Turkey deal for the release of Brunson in exchange for the release of Ebru Özkan, a Turkish woman imprisoned in Israel accused of ties to Hamas. According to Erdoğan, as Özkan was released in Israel but her passport was seized, the Turkish Foreign Ministry asked the United States to help Özkan leave the country. “But we never said we would give Brunson in return,” Erdoğan said.

Erdoğan also talked about a bill restricting US loans to Turkey that was passed by the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations during its meeting on Thursday. “They are to block credit institution loans to Turkey. Have we come to this point with those institutions?” Erdoğan said. The president warned that the United States would lose a “strong and sincere ally” if it does not change its attitude.

President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence announced on Thursday that the United States would impose sanctions on Turkey if Brunson’s detention continued. Despite US authorities’ repeated calls for his release, Brunson was moved to house arrest on Wednesday, after nearly two years in prison facing charges of supporting both the Gülen movement and outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

US Vice President Pence on Sunday reiterated a threat to Ankara that Washington would impose sanctions on Turkey if Brunson is not freed. “As I said earlier this week – and @POTUS [US President Donald Trump] has made clear — transferring Pastor Andrew Brunson to home arrest, it’s just not good enough.  And the United States of America is prepared to bring sanctions against Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free,” Pence tweeted on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Evangelical Christian leaders are urging Christians not to travel to Turkey, saying it’s unsafe for all if it isn’t safe for Brunson, the Christian Post reported on Saturday. An organisation called My Faith Votes on its Facebook page called on 25 million evangelicals to boycott travel to Turkey and Turkish Airlines until Brunson is freed.

“We hope pastors nationwide will join us in urging their congregations to boycott Turkey. Now is the time to stand in solidarity with this American citizen who has been unjustly treated by the Turkish government,” the organisation said.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu had two phone calls in the last two days to resolve the crisis between the two countries stemming from the case of pastor Brunson. (SCF with Ahval)

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