US senators visit Turkey’s Erdoğan to discuss case of jailed pastor, delivery of F-35 fighter jets

Two US senators who have sought to prevent Turkey from purchasing a Russian S-400 missile defense system and the delivery of F-35 fighter jets to the country visited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara on Friday to request the release US pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been jailed over alleged links to the Gülen movement since late 2016.

US Senators Lindsey Graham and Jeanne Shaheen held a closed-to-the-press meeting with Erdoğan at Justice and Development Party (AKP) headquarters in Ankara that lasted about an hour, likely using the opportunity to try to secure the release of Brunson.

Brunson was taken into custody in October 2016 in İzmir, western Turkey, where he had lived for over 20 years, and accused of links to the Gülen movement. The charge has been strongly rejected by Brunson himself, US President Donald Trump and other US officials including Shaheen and Graham.

In a series of tweets after the meeting, Graham said Turkey and the US had many different views on a range of topics that have caused tension between the two allies in the past year. However, he acknowledged the importance of having a strategic partnership with Turkey and said “failure is not an option” when it comes to bilateral relations.

Graham described their meeting with Erdoğan as “very good, respectful, and candid” and said they discussed Ankara’s purchase of a Russian missile defense system and the delivery of Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets.

Meanwhile, Shaheen said they had discussed the jailing of Brunson and said Erdoğan was receptive to the senators’ concerns.

On June 19, the US Senate overwhelmingly approved the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which includes an amendment prohibiting the sale to Turkey of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets, citing the purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia and detaining US citizens as the reasons.

Along with Republican Sen. James Lankford and Sen. Thom Tillis, Shaheen submitted a bill last month to prevent the delivery of F-35 warplanes to Turkey. All three senators have also been closely following Brunson’s trial in Turkey. According to the pro-Erdoğan media, all three senators want to use the bill as leverage against Turkish officials to facilitate Brunson’s release. The bill also targets Turkey’s S-400 deal.

Sen. Shaheen and Sen. Lankford also previously acknowledged that they would pursue targeted sanctions against Turkish officials in the 2019 State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs spending bill. The same senators dropped a similar attempt in March following State Department lobbying. However, because a Turkish court remanded Brunson last month, the senators brought this threat back on the agenda, expecting more leverage against Ankara.

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