Trump Pressured Israel to Release Turkish Terror Suspect in Effort to Free American Pastor in Turkey

Israel deported Turkish citizen day after Trump called Netanyahu. On Thursday, Trump threatened 'large sanctions' after Turkey kept pastor under house arrest

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U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hug after speaking at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hug after speaking at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017Credit: MANDEL NGAN / AFP

United States President Donald Trump asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to release the Turkish woman suspected of helping Hamas, as part of a deal revealed in the Washington Post to release an American pastor held by Turkey, Israeli official confirmed to Haaretz Friday.

According to the report and as confirmed to Haaretz, in a phone call between Trump and Netanyahu on July 14, Trump asked Netanyahu to release Ebru Özkan, 27 year-old Turkish citizen who was detained by Israel last month on suspicion of being a danger to state security and conspiring with terror organizations.

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U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, July 11, 2018.Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Özkan was released the day after the Trump-Netanyahu phone call, after a month in detention. Israeli officials refused until now to confirm the reason for the release, but told Haaretz that she was deported, not released, and that she would have been deported anyway at some point.

An Israeli official confirmed to Haaretz that Trump had pressured Netanyahu to release her. According to the Washington Post, the request came as part of an agreement made between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during their meeting on July 11 on the sidelines of the NATO summit. Turkish senior official denied the report, calling the claim that there was an agreement "completely baseless."

Andrew Brunson, the U.S. cleric under arrest in Turkey for terrorism charges.Credit: AFP

A Turkish offical, however, denied that Ozkan was freed by Israel. "Media reports claiming that Ebru Ozkan was released in Israel in return for the release of Andrew Brunson are completely baseless and unreal," Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said. Aksoy added in a statement that an Israeli court on July 9 decided on her conditional release, and that she was later freed pending trial and returned to Turkey.

Earlier Friday, a senior Turkish official added, "the Turkish government has no intention of meddling in the affairs of the country's independent judiciary."

Ebru Özkan escorted by prison service guards at a military court last week.Credit: NIR ELIAS/Reuters

The deal relates to the U.S. insistence that Turkey release an American Christian pastor, Andrew Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for two decades. Bruson was indicted on charges of helping the group that Ankara blames for a failed 2016 coup against President Tayyip Erdogan, as well as supporting outlawed PKK Kurdish militants.

The Washington Post reported that the Turkish terms for the release of Brunson included a long list of complaints, including the U.S. failure to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Muslim cleric who Turkey accuses of masterminding the failed coup, the U.S. investigation of a Turkish state-run bank for violating Iran sanctions and attempts by Congress to prevent delivery of F-35 fighter jets that Turkey has already purchased.

On July 18, a Turkish court rejected appeals to release Brunson. A week later, on Wednesday, the Turkish court re-adjourned and ordered the pastor, who has been detained for the last 21 months, be transferred to house arrest.

This did not satisfy the U.S., who demanded Brunson's full release. The deal fell apart, and a Turkish court decided on Wednesday to keep Brunson in jail. Brunson, who denies the charges, faces up to 35 years in jail if found guilty.

Trump said on Thursday the United States would impose significant sanctions on Turkey over its detention of Brunson and called on Ankara to immediately release him.

“No one dictates to Turkey,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted, “We will never tolerate threats from anybody.”

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday blasted Turkey over its detention of Brunson and threatened Ankara with U.S. sanctions unless the man was freed.

"To President Erdogan and the Turkish government, I have a message on behalf of the president of the United States of America: release Pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences.

The U.S. Senate passed a bill last month including a measure that prohibits Turkey from buying F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets because of Brunson's imprisonment and Turkey's purchase of Russia's S-400 air defence system.

Erdogan has previously linked Brunson's fate to that of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Muslim cleric who Turkey accuses of masterminding the failed coup. Gulen denies any involvement in the coup, in which at least 250 people were killed.

The spokesman of Turkey's ruling AK Party, Mahir Unal, said that just as Washington had responded repeatedly to Ankara's requests for Gulen's extradition by saying it was a matter for the U.S. courts, so Brunson's fate was a judicial matter.

Brunson was pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church, serving a small Protestant congregation in Turkey's third-largest city, south of the Aegean town of Aliaga where he is now on trial.

His lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt had raised hopes that Brunson could be released as the prosecution witnesses finish testifying.
But Halavurt said on Wednesday the prosecution has added the testimony of two new anonymous witnesses to the case and that the court would reconvene on Oct. 12 to hear them and view new evidence.

Turkey's lira weakened against the dollar immediately after the ruling, reflecting investor worries about tensions with the United States.

Brunson's trial is one of several legal cases that have raised tensions between Washington and Ankara. A U.S. judge sentenced a Turkish bank executive in May to 32 months in prison for helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions, while two locally employed U.S. consulate staff in Turkey have been detained.

The two NATO allies are also at odds over U.S. policy in Syria, where Washington's ally in the fight against Islamic State is a Kurdish militia that Turkey says is an extension of the PKK, which has waged a three-decade insurgency in southeast Turkey.

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