Trump: US Will Impose Sanctions on Turkey Over Detention of American Pastor

July 26, 2018 Updated: July 26, 2018    

President Donald Trump said that the United States will impose sanctions on Turkey over its protracted detainment of an American pastor.

“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!” Trump wrote on Twitter on July 26.

Shortly before Trump’s announcement, Vice President Mike Pence threatened to impose sanctions on Turkey if the country continues to detain Brunson, an American pastor from North Carolina who is at the epicenter of tensions between Washington and Ankara.

Speaking at a three-day ministerial on religious freedom, Pence said the United States “will impose significant sanctions on Turkey” if Brunson is not freed.

Turkey’s minister of foreign affairs, Mevlut Cavusoglu, indicated on Twitter that Ankara will not give in to Washington’s threat.

“Noone dictates Turkey,” Cavusoglu wrote. “We will never tolerate threats from anybody. Rule of law is for everyone; no exception.”

The spokesman for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a statement that Brunson’s detention “falls within the jurisdiction of (Turkey’s) independent judiciary.” The spokesman called on the United States to “reconsider its approach and adopt a constructive position before inflicting further damage to its own interests and its alliance with Turkey.”

The United States and Turkey are both members of NATO.

Brunson was moved from jail to house arrest on July 26 due to health problems, according to Turkey’s official news agency. The 50-year-old spent a year and a half in jail awaiting the conclusion of his trial.

Trump had previously called Brunson’s detention “a total disgrace” and issued repeated calls for the pastor’s release.

“Brunson is an innocent man, there is no credible evidence against him,” Pence said.

American officials had been under the impression that a deal was in place to free Brunson, a source in the United States familiar with the developments said. When Brunson was not released, Pence spoke with Trump and the two agreed harsh new policy measures were needed to force the issue.

In April, a bipartisan group of 66 senators sent a letter (pdf) to Erdogan calling for Brunson’s release.

In June, the U.S. Senate passed a bill prohibiting Turkey from buying F-35 fighter jets because of Brunson’s imprisonment and Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system.

And in July, a group of senators introduced legislation to restrict loans from financial institutions to Turkey until it stops detaining American citizens.

“The continued detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson, other American citizens, and embassy staff is both inhumane and unwarranted and is causing tremendous pain to their families and loved ones. Turkish officials can end this now by releasing the detained Americans,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a statement.

“The United States and Turkey are NATO allies, and we should be working together like allies. But the unjustified imprisonment of American citizens cannot stand, so it is imperative that Congress take action to demand their freedom, which is precisely what this bill will do.”

Turkey accuses Brunson of aiding a failed coup attempt, “committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member,” and espionage. He faces 35 years in prison if convicted. Brunson denies the charges.

Erdogan previously asked the United States to extradite his political rival, Fethullah Gulen, in exchange for Brunson’s release. Turkey accuses Gulen of orchestrating a 2016 military coup. Gulen denies the charges.

Gulen is a Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania. The United States has not granted Turkey’s extradition requests.

Brunson’s trial is one of several legal cases that have raised tensions between Washington and Ankara. A U.S. judge sentenced a Turkish bank executive in May to 32 months in prison for helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions, while two locally employed U.S. consulate staff in Turkey have been detained.

The NATO allies are also at odds over U.S. policy in Syria, where Washington’s ally in the fight against Islamic State is a Kurdish militia Turkey says is an extension of the PKK, which has waged a three-decade insurgency in southeast Turkey.

A Turkish court declined an offer from Brunson’s lawyer at a recent hearing to release the pastor pending the conclusion of the trial.

Brunson was pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church, serving a small Protestant congregation in Turkey’s third-largest city, south of the Aegean town of Aliaga, where he is now on trial.

His lawyer, Ismail Cem Halavurt, said on July 18 the prosecution has added the testimonies of two new anonymous witnesses to the case and that the court will hold its next hearing on Oct. 12 to hear them and view new evidence.

Brunson lived in Turkey for more than two decades before his detention.

“My service that I have spent my life on, has now turned upside down. I was never ashamed to be a server of Jesus but these claims are shameful and disgusting,” Brunson told the court in the town of Aliaga.

Reuters contributed to this report.