The US administration has rejected an effort by Turkey to tie the release of American pastor Andrew Brunson with relief for Turkish Halkbank facing billions of dollars in US fines, telling Ankara other issues are off the table until the pastor is freed, a senior White House official told The Wall Street Journal.
The rejection could lead to the US imposing additional sanctions against Turkey sometime this week, the WSJ reported.
Secretary of the US Treasury Steven Mnuchin on Aug. 16 said additional US sanctions are ready if Turkey refuses to release Brunson who the Trump administration says is illegally detained.
“A real NATO ally wouldn’t have arrested Brunson in the first place,” the senior White House official told the daily.
The pro-government Hürriyet daily on Aug. 4 removed from its website a column claiming that two separate investigations targeting Turkey’s Halkbank are being conducted in the US and that Ankara asked Washington to halt the investigations in exchange for the release of Brunson.
A US Federal judge in May 16 sentenced Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an official at state-owned Halkbank, to 32 months in prison for conspiring to violate US sanctions on Iran through his position at the bank.
After the conclusion of the Atilla trial, observers were expecting that an exorbitant fine would be levied against Halkbank.
Turkey-US relations have been strained since a Turkish court ruled to put Brunson under house arrest after almost two years of incarceration on terror charges.
Brunson has appealed the decision three times, but each petition was rejected by İzmir high criminal courts.
“Turkey has taken advantage of the United States for many years. They are now holding our wonderful Christian Pastor, who I must now ask to represent our Country as a great patriot hostage. We will pay nothing for the release of an innocent man, but we are cutting back on Turkey!” Trump tweeted on Aug. 16, after a cabinet meeting.
Atilla and Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab and seven other people, including Turkey’s former economy minister and two additional Halkbank executives, were charged with engaging in transactions worth hundreds of millions of dollars for Iran’s government and Iranian entities from 2010 to 2015 in a scheme to evade US sanctions.
Zarrab reached a plea deal with the prosecution and became its star witness in the trial of Atilla, the only defendant other than Zarrab in US custody.
Zarrab testified in early December 2017 that he had bribed Turkey’s former economy minister, Mehmet Zafer Çağlayan, in the billion-dollar scheme to smuggle gold for oil in violation of US sanctions on Iran and that then-Prime Minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan personally authorized the involvement of Turkish banks in the scheme although he was not charged in the case.