President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, two U.S. Secretaries of State, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) pressed Turkish officials this week to release American pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been in prison since October 2017 for allegedly aiding terrorists.
Ankara has not responded. Instead, on Monday, the Turkish judge presiding over the case dismissed witnesses who were in the courtroom on Brunson’s behalf and returned him to jail until the case is taken up again on July 18.
Now the idea of placing U.S. sanctions against Turkey again is gaining steam based on Brunson’s detention, Ankara helping Iran duck sanctions, and its purchase of Russian aircraft.
Brunson ran a mission and Christian church in Turkey for more than two decades before he was swept up by the crackdown following a failed coup in 2016 and arrested for allegedly supporting Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric living in Pennsylvania, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist, U.S.-designated terrorist group. Prosecutors have not clarified how a devout Christian allegedly wound up supporting an Islamist movement and a Marxist atheist militant group.
The “sham trial involving Dr. Andrew Brunson, filled with secret witnesses and conspiracy theories, is further proof of the deterioration of the relationship between the U.S. and Turkey,” Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma said in a tweet after the hearing. “Congress stands ready to take action, including sanctions if Brunson is not released.”
U.S. sanctions against Turkey would be a remarkable turn for a relationship that’s been one of the bedrocks of the post-World War II U.S. security stance in the Middle East. And even if the Brunson trial doesn’t bring them, Turkey faces the possibility of getting them for other issues: its participation in a massive scheme to evade Iranian sanctions, which resulted in the conviction of an executive at state-run Turkiye Halk Bankasi AS; and its purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia, which U.S. government lawyers have decided will trigger automatic sanctions the moment they hit Turkish soil.
As Breitbart News reported USCIRF was in the courtroom on Monday and issued a statement condemning the hearing:
“We leave the courthouse with serious concerns,” Sandra Jolley, vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a statement following the conclusion of the hearing.
“Today’s eleven hours of proceedings were dominated by wild conspiracies, tortured logic, and secret witnesses, but no real evidence to speak of. Upon these rests a man’s life,” Jolley said. “Worse still, the judge’s decision at the conclusion of today’s hearing to dismiss all of the witnesses called by Pastor Brunson’s defense without listening to a single minute of their testimony is simply unconscionable.”
Al-Monitor reported that Erdogan might be distracted by domestic issues despite the sanctions threat:
With Turkey entering a new election cycle following the announcement of snap polls on June 24, it’s rather unlikely Erdogan will care. More likely, he will brush aside senators’ calls to free Brunson and whip up further anti-Western feelings so as to woo nationalist voters instead.
Al-Monitor also noted that new U.S. Secretary of State might have a more personal stake in Brunson’s case.
“Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas, served as a deacon and taught Sunday school at the Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Wichita, which is part of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church that Brunson belongs to,” Al-Monitor reported.