The US administration has reacted negatively to 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.
“I can’t imagine that we would go down that road,” said US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert in response to a question during a daily press briefing on Thursday in Washington.
“In terms of Fethullah Gülen, who is here in the United States, we have received several requests for his extradition from the Turkish government related to him,” said Nauert, adding: “We continue to evaluate it, take a look at the materials that the Turkish government has provided us. I don’t have anything new for you on the subject of that.”
Underlining the importance of Brunson’s freedom for the US, Nauert recalled that President Donald Trump raised the issue during a meeting with Erdoğan.
“The State Department has been in as close of contact as we can be with Pastor Brunson. We last were able to visit him on September the 18th. That’s a new bit of news. The last time that we had visited him was – let’s see, it was August the 24th. And we just – we continue to advocate for his release. He was wrongfully imprisoned in Turkey, and we’d like to see him brought home.”
During a police academy graduation ceremony in Ankara on Thursday Erdoğan had said: “Some people are trying to divide us, crush us. But they will not be able to divide this nation and country, they will not be able to demolish it. They want a pastor [Andrew Brunson] from us, you have a pastor [Fethullah Gülen], too. Extradite him so that we can prosecute him.”
United States Senator for Oklahoma James Lankford on Thursday issued a statement strongly criticizing Erdoğan’s suggestion.
“President Erdoğan’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.
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 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 government to refer to the Gülen movement) in my life,” he said.
Earlier in May, CNN Türk reported that US President Trump asked President 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 efforts to save him.