United States Senator for Oklahoma James Lankford has denounced a suggestion by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that US authorities extradite Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen in return for releasing American pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been jailed in Turkey since October 2016.
In a statement from his official webpage on Thursday, Lankford described Erdoğan’s suggestion as a confession that Turkey is holding Brunson hostage in hopes that the US hands over the Pennsylvania-based Gülen, who is accused by Erdoğan and the Turkish government of masterminding a failed coup in Turkey last year.
“President Erdogan’s suggestion that the US should make a hostage-style prisoner swap for an innocent American imprisoned in Turkey is appalling and will not be taken seriously. Turkey has long been a US ally, but has chosen to complicate and weaken its relationship with the US and other free nations of the world through its increasingly autocratic policies. The US will not stand idly by as these oppressive tactics target American citizens. Turkish officials responsible for the prolonged, unjust imprisonment of Dr. Andrew Brunson, or any American, should be denied the privilege of entry in the US,” the statement said.
In December, Lankford visited Turkey to meet with Justice Ministry officials to advocate for the release of Brunson, who has been imprisoned since October 2016 on charges of links to Gülen’s movement.
In the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) 2017 Annual Report, Turkey was listed as a Tier 2 country of concern, meaning “nations in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious’ CPC standard.”
Speaking during a police academy graduation ceremony in Ankara early on Thursday, Erdoğan said “They want a cleric from us, you have a cleric, too. Extradite him so that we can prosecute him.”
Erdoğan has repeatedly called on the US to either extradite or detain Gülen despite not having submitted any evidence to the US that Gülen masterminded the failed coup attempt.
Gülen called for an international investigation into the coup attempt while Erdoğan — calling the coup attempt “a gift from God” — launched a widespread purge aimed at cleansing sympathizers of the movement from within state institutions, dehumanizing its popular figures and putting them in custody.
American pastor Brunson, who was jailed due to alleged links to the faith-based Gülen movement, was charged with acquiring secret political and military information, attempting to destroy the constitutional order and overthrow the Turkish Parliament.
Denying all accusations against him, Brunson said he is a person defending Jesus, trying to establish churches in Turkey in accordance with the law. “I am not a member of an Islamic movement. I have never seen any member of FETÖ [a derogatory term invented by the government to refer to the Gülen movement] in my life,” he said.
Earlier in May, CNN Türk reported that US President Donald Trump asked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to secure to release of Brunson during his visit to the White House.
A statement released by the White House also said Trump asked for Brunson’s release three times and his immediate deportation to the US during a meeting with Erdoğan.
Brunson, a North Carolina native, has been in custody since October after he and his wife were detained on immigration violation charges. At the time, the Brunsons were running a small Christian church in İzmir. They had lived in Turkey for 23 years.
Brunson’s wife, Norine, was soon released, but the pastor remained in custody and soon saw his charges upgraded to terrorism. Prosecutors have suggested in court hearings that Brunson is being held on suspicion of being a follower of Gülen.
The pro-Erdoğan Takvim daily accused Brunson of being behind the coup attempt, claiming that he would be the CIA chief if the coup attempt had been successful.
According to Takvim, Brunson is a “high-level CIA agent” and also a “high-level member of the Gülen movement.”
The arrest of the pastor has paralyzed CIA operations in Turkey, according to the article, and the US has been exerting all means to save him.