Trump Sanction Threat in Effort to Free Imprisoned Pastor Sparks Warning From Turkey
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erodgan warned the Trump administration on Sunday against imposing sanctions over a jailed American pastor, saying that the U.S. could end up losing Turkey as an ally.
“The U.S. should not forget that it could lose a strong and sincere partner like Turkey if it does not change its attitude,” Erdogan said in an interview with TRT, a government-controlled news organization.
“They need to know the following: we are not tied with an umbilical cord to the U.S.,” said Erdogan, adding that “The change in attitude is Trump’s problem, not mine.”
Erdogan was responding to President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence’s threats Thursday to slap sanctions on Turkey if the NATO nation does not release Andrew Brunson from house arrest.
“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. He is suffering greatly,” Trump tweeted Thursday.
Trump and others in his administration reportedly expected Brunson to be released from jail last week and allowed to return home to the U.S. The North Carolina native was imprisoned in October 2016 on vague charges of supporting terrorist organizations through a small Christian church he ran with his wife in the coastal city of Izmir.
U.S. government officials and other international observers have said that the evidence against Brunson is baseless. The Turkish government relied on three secret witnesses who claimed that Brunson lent support to supporters of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and to followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric exiled in the U.S.
The Turkish government considers both groups to be terrorist organizations.
Instead of releasing Brunson, a Turkish court ordered him placed on house arrest until his next hearing, scheduled for Oct. 12.
Trump administration officials reportedly believed that Erdogan had misled them in negotiations to release a Turkish woman jailed in Israel on terrorism charges. The woman, Ebru Ozkhan, was released from an Israeli jail in mid-July.
Erdogan disputed the claim Sunday, saying that Turkey did not agree to release Brunson in exchange for Ozkhan.
“We told the Americans that they could help us with getting [Ozkhan], but we never said ‘and in exchange we will give you Brunson,’” Erdogan told TRT.
Despite Erdogan’s claim that the Turkish court system has ultimate say over whether Brunson will be released, the authoritarian ruler has openly acknowledged that he would be willing to release Brunson in exchange for the extradition of Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999.
“The U.S. should look at the steps it has taken and comply with the extradition treaty if it wants American pastor Brunson,” Erdogan said during a speech in April.
Erdogan blames Gulen for a failed July 15, 2016, coup attempt against the Turkish government. The Turkish government has provided American authorities what it claims is evidence of Gulen’s involvement in the failed coup attempt. The status of the extradition request is unclear, but the Department of State and Department of Justice have said in the past that there is not enough evidence linking Gulen to the attempted coup.
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