Middle East

America threatens Turkey with sanctions if it does not release US pastor

Brunson was arrested in 2016 following the failed coup attempt to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Reuters)

The United States on Wednesday said it would "impose sanctions on Turkey" if it does not release US pastor Andrew Brunson, who is under house arrest.

Speaking at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, US Vice President Mike Pence described Brunson's incarceration as an act of "religious persecution" and that he is an "innocent man".

"If Turkey does not take immediate action to free innocent man of faith and send him home to America, then the United States will impose significant sanctions until Pastor Brunson is free," said Pence during his address.

"To President Erdogan and his government, I have a message from the United States of America: Release Pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences."

If Turkey does not take immediate action to free Pastor Andrew Brunson and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until this innocent man of faith is free. pic.twitter.com/GM9WohpMRm

— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) July 26, 2018

In response to Pence's announcement, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Thursday said that Turkey would not "tolerate threats from anybody."

"No one dictates Turkey. We will never tolerate threats from anybody," Cavusoglu posted on Twitter. "Rule of law is for everyone; no exception."

Turkish Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin also added to Cavusoglu's comments and said that America's "use of threatening language against Turkey, a NATO ally, is unacceptable."

"The US administration, which has taken no steps whatsoever against the terrorist group FETO until today, must understand that it cannot reach desired results by threatening Turkey over an issue, which falls within the jurisdiction of the country's independent judiciary," Kalin said in a statement.

"The United States must reconsider its approach and adopt a constructive position before inflicting further damage to its own interests and its alliance with Turkey."

Noone dictates Turkey. We will never tolerate threats from anybody. Rule of law is for everyone; no exception.

— Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu (@MevlutCavusoglu) July 26, 2018

On Wednesday, Brunson was released from prison and placed under house arrest after being detained in October 2016 for allegedly aiding the outlawed Gulen movement.

Brunson ran a Protestant church in the city of Izmir and was one of the hundreds of people swept up in arrests by Turkey following the failed coup attempt in 2016.

Commenting on his release, Pence welcomed Turkey's decision to place Brunson under house arrest but said it was "not good enough".

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also commented on Brunson's release and said there was "no credible evidence against Mr Brunson" and called on "Turkish authorities to resolve his case immediately in a transparent and fair manner."

Strained relationships

Turkey's case against Brunson has further strained its relationships with America.

Earlier this month, America rejected proposals by Turkey to release Brunson in exchange for US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara blames for the failed 2016 coup bid.

The two issues, added to disputes on Syria and the detention of two Turkish US diplomatic mission staffers, have caused significant strains in the relationship between the NATO allies.

"One of the aspects of the tension in the relationship has been when people, including people in the government, have drawn very direct linkages [between Gulen and Brunson]," said the official, asking not to be named.

"Very senior people have suggested that," he said. "We do not think it is appropriate to link these cases, partly because the legal systems are very different in the two countries, and the cases are very different."

In September, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that Turkey could free Brunson if Washington handed over Gulen in a swap deal.

"Give him [Gulen] to us, and we will try [Brunson] and give him back," Erdogan said then.

The US official's comments came after US President Donald Trump described Turkey's failure to release Brunson as a "total disgrace" and called on Erdogan to "do something" to free him.

Turkey has also expressed exasperation at the failure of the US to hand over Gulen to face trial, although the official said there was now an increase in communication between Ankara and US legal authorities.

The official said Turkey had presented a "large quantity" of information about Gulen but said "the issue is 'is there sufficiently clear evidence of Fethullah Gulen's involvement in the coup?'" to allow extradition.

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