A bipartisan group of senators on Thursday moved to block Turkey, a NATO ally, from receiving F-35 Lightning II fighters over the imprisonment of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, The Hill reported on Thursday.
Senators James Lankford of Oklahoma, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Thom Tillis from North Carolina, Brunson’s home state, introduced a bill to prevent the transfer of the Lockheed Martin–made F-35 to Turkey and to block Ankara’s role as a maintenance depot for the aircraft.
Under the US-led, multinational Joint Strike Fighter program, Turkey has committed to buying 116 of the F-35A variant.
A native of Black Mountain, North Carolina, Brunson has been in custody since October 2016 after he and his wife were detained on immigration violation charges. At the time, the Brunsons were running a small Christian church in İzmir and had lived in Turkey for 23 years.
Brunson’s wife was shortly released, but the cleric remained in custody and soon saw his charges upgraded to terrorism. Prosecutors suggested in court hearings that Brunson was held on suspicion of being a follower of Fethullah Gülen, who along with the movement he inspired has been accused by the Turkish government of masterminding a failed coup in Turkey in July 2016.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “has continued down a path of reckless governance and disregard for the rule of law,” making the transfer of sensitive F-35 technology to his government “increasingly risky,” Lankford said in a statement.
“Turkey’s strategic decisions regrettably fall more and more out of line with, and at times in contrast to, US interests,” he continued.
“Furthermore, the Turkish government continues to move closer and closer to Russia, as they hold an innocent American pastor in prison to use him as a pawn in political negotiations. The United States does not reward hostage-taking of American citizens; such action instead will be met with the kind of punitive measures this bill would enact.”
Tillis, meanwhile, said that although Turkey has long been a vital NATO ally, “denying the rights of law-abiding Americans undermines the relationship between our two countries.”
“The Erdoğan government should understand that Congress will pursue measures to protect the interests of American citizens, including stopping the transfer of F-35 aircraft to Turkey,” added Tillis, who sits on the Senate Armed Service Committee along with Shaheen.
The bill is the latest attempt from lawmakers to force Turkey to release Brunson, who faces up to 15 years in prison for perpetrating crimes in the name of the Gülen movement and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) despite not being member of either, and up to 20 years for obtaining state secrets for political or military espionage.
Brunson has denied the allegations.
Lankford and Shaheen, both on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs, last week called for economic sanctions against Turkey as part of a fiscal 2019 spending bill if Brunson is not released.
Lawmakers have previously called for withholding military equipment from Turkey as the relationship between the NATO member and the United States becomes increasingly fraught.
Last year, House Foreign Affairs Committee member David Cicilline of Rhode Island proposed blocking the sale of F-35s and handguns to Turkey to force its government to comply with US law after the May 2017 on protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington.