The US administration is upping the pressure on Ankara over its detention and ongoing trial of Andrew Brunson, an American Christian pastor who stands accused of espionage and terrorism in Turkey, where he has resided for the past 23 years tending a small church in Izmir.
“The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being. He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!” US President Donald Trump tweeted on Thursday morning, following up on a tweet by Vice President Mike Pence that said, “If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this innocent man of faith and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free.”
Pence had also warned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a speech in Washington earlier Thursday, saying Erdoğan should allow Brunson to return to the United States “now or be prepared to face the consequences.”
“This is a welcome first step, but it is not good enough,” Pence said during remarks at the close of a three-day conference on religious freedom at the State Department. “I know that his faith will sustain him, but it shouldn’t have to. Pastor Andrew Brunson deserves to be free,” The Washington Post reported.
The İzmir 2nd High Criminal Court on Wednesday ruled to move Brunson from pretrial detention, in which he has been held since October 2016, to house arrest in İzmir but barred him from leaving the premises or the country.
The same court last week had ruled to keep Brunson, who faces 35 years, in jail, setting the next hearing for Oct. 12.
The court’s most recent decision came days after six US senators introduced bipartisan legislation to restrict loans from international financial institutions to Turkey “until the Turkish government ends the unjust detention of US citizens.”
According to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations statement, the bill, known as the Turkey International Financial Institutions Act, directs the US executive of the World Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to oppose future loans, except for humanitarian purposes, to Turkey.
Trump on July 18 urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to release Brunson, who has been in prison in Turkey for nearly two years, calling his continued detention a “total disgrace.”
“A total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected U.S. Pastor, Andrew Brunson, from prison. He has been held hostage far too long. @RT_Erdogan should do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father. He has done nothing wrong, and his family needs him!” Trump tweeted.
Erdoğan in September had called on Washington to swap Brunson for Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Muslim cleric living in self-imposed exile in the US who Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government accuse of orchestrating a failed coup in 2016.
Prosecutors accuse Brunson of activities on behalf of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as well as the group inspired by Gülen. The Gülen movement strongly denies any involvement in the abortive putsch.
Brunson, a North Carolina native, 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. They had lived in Turkey for 23 years.