US senators directly tie ‘hostage-taking’ of Pastor Brunson to Turkish President Erdoğan

American Pastor Andrew Brunson.

US senators Jeanne Shaheen and James Lankford, who serve on the US Senate’s Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs, have accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of “hostage taking” in the imprisonment of American Pastor Andrew Brunson.

According to a report by online news outlet Ahval, two US senators went on a popular Fox TV show to discuss Brunson, who has been jailed for over 18 months in Turkey and charged with allegedly aiding terrorist organisations before a controversial coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016.

Senator Shaheen referred to the imprisonment of Brunson as “hostage taking” by the Turkish government and directly accused Turkish President Erdoğan of a role in the episode, saying, “Pastor Brunson is being held hostage, and I think it goes right to the top to President Erdoğan, he’s the one responsible.”

Erdoğan has in previous statements tied the fate of Pastor Brunson to US-based Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, whose teachings have inspired the faith-based Gülen movement.

“These are totally made up charges, and they don’t even connect Pastor Brunson with his church, they called him a Mormon and don’t seem to know who he represents,” said Shaheen, referring to the the indictment against Brunson, whose trial began on April 16.

“This is someone who has been in Turkey for 23 years, who at his trial when he was asked about the charges said, ‘I love Turkey, I would never do anything against the Turkish people,’ so this is not fair,” added the New Hampshire Democrat. “We have to make sure that there is some heat brought on Turkey for what they are doing.”

From the Republican side of the aisle, Senator Lankford also joined Shaheen on the same program and unveiled some of the details of the sanctions being discussed in the Senate against Turkey. The Oklahoma senator said that the discussion had recommended “putting sanctions directly on those individuals [responsible for imprisoning Brunson], this would be the judges, this would be the city officials. This is targeting those individuals who are actually doing the hostage taking, who are facilitating him being held.”

Lankford recalled that Turkey is a long-time NATO ally and ally of the US “who we have had a great partnership with fighting against terrorism.” However, Lankford said, “In the last three years Turkey has made a really dramatic shift from who they have been in the partnership, and they are shifting away from both Western values, ideas and rule of law and all the things that have bound us together to become something we really don’t recognize.”

Lankford argued that it was Turkey that had moved away from its relationship with the US, not the other way around, “So we would love to be able to restore this relationship with Turkey, but we have not moved, they have moved. We would like to patch this together.”

Proposed language on Turkey sanctions in defense of what US congressmen called hostages was dropped from a draft $1,3 trillion federal spending bill that was released to the public last month, after the State Department’s lobbying against the sanctions won the day. Senators promised then that if no improvement was seen, the possibility of sanctions would be brought to bear on Turkey.

Senators Lankford and Shaheen issued a statement last week saying, “Turkish officials who participate in the detainment of any innocent American citizen should face international consequences, and the actions against Pastor Brunson, in particular, qualify as hostage-taking.”

“We desire cooperation and strengthening ties between our countries, but the US Government has a responsibility to ensure the safety and welfare of its people,” they said.

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.

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