“At the president’s direction, the Department of the Treasury is sanctioning Turkey’s minister of justice and minister of interior…”
(Maggy Donaldson, AFP) The United States on Wednesday hit two top Turkish officials with sanctions over the ongoing detention of an American pastor facing terror charges, heaping pressure on Ankara to release the prisoner fueling a bitter diplomatic feud.
The move targeting Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu further ratcheted up tensions between the NATO allies, with Ankara vowing to retaliate over the measures and what it dubbed an “aggressive attitude.”
Andrew Brunson, who led a Protestant church in the Aegean city of Izmir, was placed under house arrest last week after nearly two years in jail on charges of espionage and supporting terror groups. He faces up to 35 years in jail if convicted.
“We’ve seen no evidence that Pastor Brunson has done anything wrong, and we believe he’s a victim of unfair and unjust attention by the government of Turkey,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told journalists.
“At the president’s direction, the Department of the Treasury is sanctioning Turkey’s minister of justice and minister of interior, both of whom played leading roles in the arrest and detention of Pastor Brunson.”
The sanctions freeze any property or assets on US soil held by the two ministers, and bar US citizens from doing business with them.
Turkey’s foreign ministry did not waste time in hitting back, saying: “There is no doubt that this will greatly damage constructive efforts working to solve the issues between the two countries.”
“Without delay, there will be a response to this aggressive attitude that will not serve any purpose,” the ministry added.
“We call on the US administration to turn back from this wrong decision.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke Wednesday with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, and has plans to meet him next week to demand Brunson’s freedom, the State Department said.
“Turkey knows our position well: Pastor Brunson must be released from house arrest and brought back home,” Pompeo’s spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters traveling with him.
“This has gone on far too long.”
Pompeo said Trump had decided that sanctions were “the appropriate action.”
– ‘Unjust detention’ –
Brunson was initially detained in October 2016 during Turkey’s crackdown following an attempted putsch.
He stands accused of carrying out activities on behalf of two organizations Ankara considers terror groups.
One is led by the US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, who Turkish authorities say was behind a 2016 failed coup. The other is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The pastor denies the charges and his defense team argues the case is built on questionable witness statements. His next hearing is set for October 12.
Vice President Mike Pence, who like Brunson is an evangelical Christian, has declared him “a victim of religious persecution.”
But Erdogan retorted that Turkey does not have the “slightest problem against religious minorities.”
On Wednesday, Erdogan accused the United States of having an “evangelist, Zionist mentality” and using “threat-filled language.”
Brunson is one of tens of thousands of people — several of them Americans — detained on similar charges during the state of emergency declared by Erdogan in the wake of the 2016 failed coup bid.
The spat over the pastor has stoked tensions between the two governments, which were already quarreling over Washington’s support of a Syrian Kurdish militia.
Turkey is also angry at the United States for its refusal to extradite Gulen, who lives in exile in rural Pennsylvania and vehemently denies that he masterminded the failed 2016 coup bid.
Ankara meanwhile upset Washington by imprisoning two Turkish employees of American consulates in the country and holding another under house arrest on terror-related charges.
The imposition of sanctions on the two ministers is sure to fuel the fire.
“President Trump has made it abundantly clear that the United States expects Turkey to release him immediately,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement announcing the punitive measures against Gul and Soylu.
Washington accused the two ministers of leading government organizations behind “serious human rights abuses.”
The Turkish lira fell to a record low of 5.0 against the dollar after the sanctions announcement, losing more than 1.6 percent of its value.