The Trump administration imposed economic sanctions on two senior officials in Turkey’s increasingly despotic regime Wednesday as retaliation for the “unfair and unjust detention” of American pastor Andrew Brunson who has been in Turkish custody since October 2016.
The repressive pro-Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses Brunson, 50, an evangelical Presbyterian minister from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years, of espionage and helping terrorists, NPR reports. Specifically, Erdogan’s government has accused Brunson of aiding the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a long-running separatist insurgency. Brunson, who was in jail but is currently under house arrest, could be given a 35-year prison term if convicted on all charges. A relative who visited him said he had lost 50 pounds in jail.
“Pastor Brunson’s unjust detention and continued prosecution by Turkish officials is simply unacceptable,” Secretary of the U.S. Treasury Steven Mnuchin said. “President Trump has made it abundantly clear that the United States expects Turkey to release him immediately.”
The sanctions are aimed specifically at Turkey’s justice minister, Abdulhamit Gul, and its interior minister, Suleyman Soylu. The sanctions forbid U.S. citizens from doing business with both individuals and block any of their assets that are under U.S. jurisdiction.
Turkey is an ally of the United States through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) but relations between the two countries have been strained in recent years as Erdogan strives to transmogrify his nation into a full-blown Islamist state. Erdogan has infamously justified his drive away from secularism and toward authoritarianism by saying, “Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off.”
The imposition of sanctions prompted Turkish opposition party Iyi to demand the Turkish government seize the sprawling Trump Towers complex in Istanbul. (“Iyi” means good in Turkish.) But it turns out the property isn’t owned by Trump or his company. The owner is reportedly Turkish conglomerate Dogan Holding, which paid as much as $5 million to put Trump’s name on the facility.
Iyi spokesman Aytun Ciray later retracted the call after speaking to the hotel’s owners, but Trump’s name could still be removed from the property. Outraged by Trump’s claimed Islamophobia, President Erdogan previously said Trump’s name should be taken off the Trump Towers.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has had several conversations with Turkey’s foreign affairs minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, about freeing Brunson and others swept up in a security dragnet after a failed coup attempt in 2016, according to State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. The effort to oust the Turkish autocrat is widely believed to have been staged by Erdogan himself as a means of consolidating his power.
“Turkey knows our position well,” Nauert said Wednesday. “This has gone on far too long.”
Cavusoglu’s ministry quickly promised to retaliate against the United States with “an equivalent response” if the Trump administration failed to reverse “this wrong decision.”
“There is no doubt that the decision, which disrespectfully intervenes with our judicial system, stands in contrast to the essence of our relations and will seriously damage the constructive efforts made in order to resolve problems between the two countries,” the ministry stated.
Erdogan suggested last year that his country would be willing to swap Brunson for Fethullah Gulen, an elderly Sunni imam from Turkey who lives in a guarded compound in Pennsylvania and whom Erdogan claims organized the failed 2016 coup. Gulen denies any involvement. Turkey accuses Brunson of working with Gulen’s supporters.
“You have a pastor, too,” Erdogan said in 2017. “You give us that one and we’ll work with our judiciary and give back yours.”
Gulen is often described by the mainstream media as a moderate Muslim, but Center for Security Policy Vice President for Research and Analysis Clare Lopez disputes that characterization.
Although Erdogan and Gulen have had a falling out, “they were on the same page for a long, long time, along with President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, which is in power now in Turkey, the AKP for short, and they’ve shared the agenda for the destruction for Ataturk’s modernization program in Turkey and a turn in Turkey back to neo-Ottoman days, and an Islamist agenda.”
The two men are “at odds because they both can’t be in power,” Lopez said in 2016 on Frank Gaffney’s “Secure Freedom Radio” program. “They both can’t be on top. They’re bitter rivals for power inside of Turkey right now.”
U.S. officials aren’t keen on Erdogan’s pastor-exchange proposal and American lawmakers have joined with Trump to demand Brunson’s release.
“Our fellow citizens aren’t bargaining chips,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said Wednesday.
“Pastor Brunson is an innocent man. Turkey’s charges are completely unjust and these new sanctions are absolutely warranted. President Erdogan ought to know that the United States expects more from a member of NATO. Free Pastor Brunson now.”
The newly unveiled sanctions were not unexpected.
On July 26, Trump took to Twitter to warn that sanctions were coming:
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. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!
Trump has been using Twitter for months to demand Brunson’s release. On April 17 he tweeted that Brunson was “a fine gentleman” who was “on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason.” On July 18 Trump again demanded Brunson’s release, saying it was a “total disgrace” that Turkey would not release this “respected U.S. Pastor” who “has been held hostage far too long.”
Give them time: Trump’s sanctions may actually succeed in bringing Brunson home.