President Donald Trump has warned that the US will hit Turkey with “large sanctions” over an American pastor detained on terror and espionage charges, and he called for the pastor’s immediate release.
Tweeting from aboard Air Force One, Trump said: “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.” Trump said Brunson “is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!”
Just hours earlier, Vice President Mike Pence said that if Turkey did not take immediate action to free Brunson, “the United States of America will impose significant sanctions on Turkey.” Pence spoke at the close of a three-day conference in Washington on religious freedom.
Brunson, 50, an evangelical Christian pastor originally from North Carolina, was let out of jail on Wednesday, after 21 months, to serve house arrest because of “health problems,” according to Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency. On his arrival home home under police escort on Wednesday afternoon, a crowd of Turkish Christians from his Izmir Resurrection Church greeted him with cries of “We love you, Andrew!”
At the time of posting this report there had been no response yet from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is currently in South Africa as a guest of the annual summit of BRICS countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu responded defiantly to the US ultimatum that sent the Turkish lira falling sharply against the dollar. Responding with a tweet he said: “No one dictates Turkey. We will never tolerate threats from anybody. Rule of law is for everyone; no exception.”
The foreign minister’s reference to the rule of law will not impress western observers in Brunson’s court hearing who told World Watch Monitor there was not one piece of evidence so far produced to indicate the pastor is guilty of any crime, and that his trial is for political expediency. Erdogan wants Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania to be exradited back to Turkey to stand trail for allegedly planning a coup attempt in 2016.
Brunson was detained nearly two years ago, in October 2016, and faces up to 35 years in prison if found guilty of terrorism and spying charges – of having links with the Fethullah Gülen movement, which the Ankara government blames for the failed July 2016 coup attempt, and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The pastor has completely denied all the charges, calling them “shameful and disgusting”.
On July 18, a court in the western province of Izmir rejected Brunson’s defence lawyers’ pleas to let him go and remanded the pastor in custody pending a fourth hearing on October 12.
The court’s subsequent decision to release Brunson from prison and place him under house arrest, citing health reasons, was likely prompted by a raft of sanctions the US Congress has vowed to ram through over the continued detention of Brunson and other US nationals and Turkish citizens who work for US diplomatic missions in Turkey.
Congress charges Ankara is holding them as political hostages in a brazen bid to wrest concessions on a number of thorny issues that have poisoned ties. Among the most pressing is a multi-billion-dollar fine that will likely be imposed on state-owned lender Halkbank for evading US sanctions on Iran.
Trump’s bluntly-worded ultimatum suggest that placing Brunson under house arrest fell far short of appeasing the administration. Washington may have thought it had a deal with Ankara and that Brunson was going to be freed and allowed to fly home after his third hearing on July 18.