US sanctions 2 Turkish ministers with leading roles in unjust detention of Pastor Brunson

Abdulhamit Gül (L) and Süleyman Soylu.

The United States sanctioned Turkey’s Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül and Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu on Wednesday over the country’s imprisonment of American Pastor Andrew Brunson.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the men had played leading roles in Brunson’s 2016 arrest and detention.

“Pastor Brunson’s unjust detention and continued prosecution by Turkish officials is simply unacceptable,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement formally announcing the financial restrictions. “President Trump has made it abundantly clear that the United States expects Turkey to release him immediately.”

Separately, the US Senate voted on Wednesday to pass the $716 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would that temporarily block the delivery of F-35 jets to Turkey. The Senate voted 87-10 to approve the NDAA, which includes a provision to force the Pentagon to halt the transfer of the aircraft until it provides a report within 90 days to Congress addressing key issues of Turkish behaviour, particularly its military deals with Russia and continued detention of Brunson.

Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told The National news outlet that the new sanctions “are obviously a big deal, but these seem calibrated to try and limit damage to the Turkish economy, while still making a point.”

On Tuesday, a Turkish court rejected Brunson’s appeal to be released from house arrest during his trial on terrorism charges. Turkey has accused him of helping the group that Ankara has said was behind a failed military coup two years ago.

Sanders said that President Donald Trump had spoken with Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan about Brunson.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with his counterpart by telephone, and they planned to meet on the sidelines of ASEAN meetings this week in Singapore, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said.

The Turkish government strongly protested the decision of the US Department of the Treasury to impose sanctions, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a written statement late Wednesday. “The aggressive attitude of the US serves no purpose; Turkey will respond in kind,” it said. The ministry called on the US administration to reverse its “wrong decision.”

Although the statement did not detail what sanctions with which the Turkish government will retaliate, the pro-government Hürriyet Daily News wrote that it is expected that similar sanctions will be imposed on the US attorney general and secretary of the interior.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also tweeted that “US attempt to impose sanctions on our two ministers will not go unanswered.”

“We will not be able to resolve our problems unless the US administration realizes that it cannot reach its unlawful demands through this method,” he said.

Meanwhile, Justice Minister Gül said he has “not even a single cent” in the United States. “I have never had any dream but to live in my country,” he said.

Turkish Interior Minister Soylu also reacted to the US move to impose sanctions on him and the country’s justice minister in a Twitter post on Thursday. “We have a property in America: FETÖ. We will not leave it there. We will get it,” Soylu wrote on his official Twitter account.

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

Soylu’s remarks came a day after White House Press Secretary Sanders said the US would impose sanctions on Soylu and Gül for not releasing Brunson. Sanders said the US would block “any property, or interest in property of the two ministers.”

Four Turkish political parties also protested against the US sanctions on Thursday “in the strongest way.”

“We say ‘no’ to the US threats with the common solidarity and determination of our nation,” said the ruling AKP, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the AKP’s ultra-nationalist ally the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the nationalist İYİ Party in a joint statement. It added that it was the right of the executive body, the presidency, to give the necessary response to the US based on the principle of international reciprocity.

Anticipation of the US sanctions had already helped to send the Turkish lira to an all-time low against the dollar on Wednesday. The lira extended a record low on Thursday after the US imposed sanctions. The lira dropped 1,6 percent to 5,07 per dollar at 10:18 a.m. in İstanbul, taking losses this year to 27 percent. It had fallen more than 1,7 percent on Wednesday to 5,01 to the dollar before recovering slightly to close at 4,99 against the US currency.

Prior to the announcement of the sanctions of the two Turkish ministers, Bloomberg reported that the US had prepared a list of Turkish entities and individuals to target should it decide to impose sanctions on Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government for imprisoning US citizens and employees of its diplomatic mission.

Turkey’s lira plunged to 4,9985 after Bloomberg News reported the possible sanctions, extending its decline to 4,5 percent since July 26, when Vice President Mike Pence threatened sanctions over the Brunson case.

“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 tweeted last Thursday.

Brunson, a North Carolina native, had 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.

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

A Turkish court last week released from prison Brunson, putting him under house arrest due to “health problems.” The US administration immediately welcomed the ruling but said it was not enough, calling on Turkish authorities to resolve his case immediately.

The statement by the US Department of the Treasury is as follows:

The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) took action today targeting Turkey’s Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gul and Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu, both of whom played leading roles in the organizations responsible for the arrest and detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson.  These officials serve as leaders of Turkish government organizations responsible for implementing Turkey’s serious human rights abuses, and are being targeted pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13818, “Blocking the Property of Persons Involved in Serious Human Rights Abuse or Corruption,” which builds upon Treasury’s Global Magnitsky Act authorities. 

Pastor Brunson’s unjust detention and continued prosecution by Turkish officials is simply unacceptable,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.  “President Trump has made it abundantly clear that the United States expects Turkey to release him immediately.”

Pastor Andrew Brunson has reportedly been a victim of unfair and unjust detention by the Government of Turkey.  He was arrested in Izmir, Turkey in October 2016, and with an absence of evidence to support the charges, he was accused of aiding armed terrorist organizations and obtaining confidential government information for political and military espionage.  

As the head of Turkey’s Ministry of Justice, Abdulhamit Gul is being designated pursuant to E.O. 13818 for being the leader of an entity that has engaged in, or whose members have engaged in, serious human rights abuse. 

As head of Turkey’s Ministry of Interior, Suleyman Soylu is being designated pursuant to E.O. 13818 for being the leader of an entity that has engaged in, or whose members have engaged in, serious human rights abuse.

As a result of these actions, any property, or interest in property, of both Turkey’s Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gul and Turkey’s Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu within U.S. jurisdiction is blocked, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.

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