U.S. Sanctions Turkish Ministers Over American Pastor's Detention

President Donald Trump threatened last week to impose 'large sanctions' on Turkey unless it frees the pastor

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they tour the new NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, July 11, 2018.
Tatyana Zenkovich/AP

The United States has announced it would sanction Turkey's Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu over the country's imprisonment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, with White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders saying the two men played leading roles in his 2016 arrest and later detention. 

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

U.S. President Donald Trump said he has discussed Brunson's imprisonment directly with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on several occasions.

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

Anticipation of the U.S. sanctions had already helped to send the Turkish lira to an all-time low against the dollar on Wednesday. 

Turkish court rejected an appeal on Tuesday for an American pastor to be released from house arrest during his trial on terrorism charges, his lawyer said, in a case which has raised the threat of U.S. sanctions against Ankara. 

Relations between the two NATO allies have spiraled into a full-blown crisis over the trial of Christian pastor Andrew Brunson, who was held for 21 months in a Turkish prison until his transfer to house arrest last week -- a move Washington dismissed as insufficient. 

Trump threatened on Thursday to impose "large sanctions" on Turkey unless it frees the pastor, who is accused of helping the group Ankara says was behind a failed military coup in 2016. 

Trump had also asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to release a Turkish woman suspected of helping Hamas, as part of a deal revealed in the Washington Post Friday to release Brunson.

Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, faces up to 35 years in jail if found guilty of the charges, which he denies. 

The next hearing in his trial is not scheduled until October 12, but his lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt said he would keep pressing for Brunson's release. "We are going to request his house arrest be lifted every month," he told Reuters. 

The White House has not specified what sanctions might be imposed on Turkey but members of the U.S. Congress, in two pieces of legislation pending approval, have condemned the detention of Brunson and other Americans. 

One proposed bill would restrict loans from international financial institutions to Turkey until Ankara stops the "arbitrary arrest and detention" of U.S. citizens and consular staff. Language that calls for the release of Brunson and others has also been included in a defense authorization bill. 

Turkey 'won't bow down'

Erdogan's spokesman said on Tuesday that Turkey would not "bow down to any threats," and would retaliate against any U.S. sanctions. 

"It is unacceptable for the U.S. to use a threatening language against Turkey, using an ongoing court case as a pretext," spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said. 

Ankara has the right to seek arbitration if Washington blocks delivery of F-35 jets to Turkey, Kalin said. He added that Turkey expects the issue to be resolved through diplomacy, and that the foreign ministers of the two countries would meet this week. 

A State Department official was unable to confirm any planned meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, but a lawyer following Brunson's case said high-level contacts were ongoing. 

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which represents Brunson's family, said the ACLJ was not surprised that the appeal was denied. 

"Ongoing diplomatic efforts are taking place at the highest level," Sekulow said. 

Brunson was accused of helping supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric who Turkish authorities say masterminded the 2016 coup attempt against President Tayyip Erdogan in which 250 people were killed. 

He was also charged with supporting outlawed PKK Kurdish militants and espionage. 

Brunson's detention has deepened a rift between Washington and Ankara, which are also at odds over the Syrian war, Turkey's plan to buy a missile defense system from Russia, and planned U.S. sanctions on Iran -- which supplies fuel to Turkey.