US Senators James Lankford of Oklahoma and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire on Thursday released a joint statement on their decision to pursue targeted sanctions against Turkish officials in a fiscal year 2019 spending bill in response to the unjust imprisonment of Dr. Andrew Brunson.
Brunson, who has been jailed since October 2016, is standing trial in Turkey on charges of links to the Gülen movement, terrorism and espionage.
“Turkish President Erdogan has continued to violate the trust between our two nations by holding Pastor Brunson and other innocent Americans behind bars on fabricated charges. Accordingly, we will request sanctions be applied to Turkish officials as part of the Fiscal Year 2019 State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs spending bill. Turkish officials who participate in the detainment of any innocent American citizen should face international consequences, and the actions against Pastor Brunson, in particular, qualify as hostage-taking.
“We desire cooperation and strengthening ties between our countries, but the US Government has a responsibility to ensure the safety and welfare of its people. Turkey has an opportunity to repair relations by immediately releasing Dr. Andrew Brunson, deporting him back to the US and ceasing its unprecedented policy of hostage-taking immediately. Ultimately, these results would benefit both our great nations,” said the statement from the two senators.
A Christian pastor from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for 23 years, Brunson was indicted on charges of helping the Gülen movement. Brunson on Monday denied allegations of any links to the movement as he went on trial in a case that has fuelled tensions between the Turkish government and the Trump administration.
Brunson faces two sentences of 15 and 20 years in prison if convicted. The Turkish government accuses Brunson of gathering intelligence using his religious work as a cover and working to convert Kurds to Christianity to “divide” the country.
Robert Pearson, a former US ambassador to Turkey, told AhvalTV that Brunson was being used as a hostage to extract demands from the United States. “The minister appears to be a hostage to Turkish demands from the US,” said Pearson. “He has been peaceful for years in Turkey. He was charged with cooperation with terrorists, something that has been used against hundreds of thousands of Turkish citizens after the coup.”
Washington has called for Brunson’s release, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suggested last year the pastor’s fate could be linked to that of US-based Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, whose extradition Ankara has repeatedly sought to face charges over the controversial coup attempt.
Erdoğan referred to Washington in a speech to police officers last year in which he said: “Give us the pastor back,’ they say. You have one pastor as well. Give him [Gülen] to us. … Then we will try him [Brunson] and give him to you. The [pastor] we have is on trial. Yours is not — he is living in Pennsylvania. You can easily give him to us. You can hand him over right away.”
The idea of a swap was brushed off by Washington. US officials have said that Turkish government has failed to provide sufficient evidence to justify Gülen’s extradition, raising frustration in Erdoğan’s autocratic regime in Ankara.
Turkey survived a coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that killed 249 people. Immediately after the putsch, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government along with President Erdoğan pinned the blame on the Gülen movement.
Fethullah Gülen, who inspired the movement, strongly denied having any role in the failed coup and called for an international investigation into it, but President Erdoğan — calling the coup attempt “a gift from God” — and the government initiated a widespread purge aimed at cleansing sympathizers of the movement from within state institutions, dehumanizing its popular figures and putting them in custody.