State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert reiterated to reporters during a regular briefing Tuesday that, as Vice President Mike Pence had noted a week ago, Turkey faces “the very real risk of sanctions” if it does not free American pastor Andrew Brunson, arrested on dubious charges of aiding Marxist and Islamist terrorist groups.
Brunson was arrested in the aftermath of the 2016 failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for allegedly conspiring with U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated Marxist terrorist organization. Brunson, a Christian from North Carolina who has preached in Turkey without incident for over two decades, denies the charges, noting the lack of evidence against him and lack of motive for a Christian pastor to aid either of the groups he is accused of associating with.
Last week, President Donald Trump warned Turkey on Twitter that the United States will not hesitate to sanction the country if it does not release Brunson soon.
Asked about Trump’s warning, Nauert noted that Pence also echoed “the very real risk of sanctions for the Government of Turkey.”
“That is something that the United States Government has had numerous conversations with the Government of Turkey about. In terms of precise sanctions or forecasting exact sanctions, that I’m not going to be able to do. We would certainly like Pastor Brunson to be sent home now. It’s long overdue,” Nauert said. “He is innocent. We have – continue to have concerns about his longstanding detainment in Turkey. A step in the right direction certainly that he is under house arrest, but that’s certainly not far enough. We’d like him to be brought home.”
Nauert insisted that discussions on Brunson’s freedom are “a very sensitive matter” and refused to provide details on what Ankara and Washington have deliberated in private conversations. She noted that the Trump administration is also advocating for the release of three individuals employed in various consulates in the country, believed to be Turkish nationals.
“We would also like to bring home the three locally employed staff who have also been detained, which, by the way, I want to point out to all of you – we’ve spoken about our locally employed staff who’ve been detained in Turkey for far too long as well,” Nauert said, dismissing claims that the United States has not pressured Turkey on their release as “flat-out untrue.”
Following Nauert’s remarks, Turkish media reported on Wednesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu once again since their last conversation over the weekend on Brunson. The content of that conversation has remained private, but the Turkish government has since escalated its rhetoric against the United States.
Erdoğan told reporters at a press conference Wednesday that Turkey would be disregarding any warnings from Washington on impending sanctions.
“Approaching us with threatening remarks will not earn anyone anything,” Erdoğan asserted, according to Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. “We displayed the best solidarity with the U.S. at NATO. We were with them in Korea [War]. It will not be appropriate for Turkey that such a language of threat is used while having the highest level of solidarity at NATO. And excuse me but we will not give credit to such a threatening language.”
“They need to know our character well. We had bilateral talks with them. We use a single discourse and a single language over the issue,” Erdoğan said, referring to Brunson in particular. “I hope that my Foreign Minister [Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu] and his U.S. counterpart [Mike Pompeo] will meet.”
Erdoğan also denied that Turkey is persecuting religious minorities, despite growing government promotion of Islam under his rule.
“Turkey has no problems related to [religious] minorities. Threatening language of the U.S. evangelist, Zionist mentality is unacceptable,” Erdoğan said.
Trump has repeatedly rejected all allegations against Brunson and demanded his immediate release. Most recently, Trump wrote on Twitter last week that Washington “will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson.”
The Izmir court in charge of Brunson’s case chose to grant Brunson house arrest last week, citing a significant deterioration in his health. On Tuesday, it refused a motion to grant his release.
Brunson faces 35 years in prison.