Ankara (AFP) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the United States Thursday that Turkey could release a jailed American pastor if Washington handed over exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen who Ankara blames for last year’s failed coup.
The US pastor, Andrew Brunson, has been held by Turkish authorities since October 2016 on charges of being a member of Gulen’s group.
Ankara has repeatedly called for Gulen living in the US state of Pennsylvania to be extradited to Turkey to face charges of ordering the July 2016 attempted coup.
Gulen, who has been in self-imposed exile since 1999, strongly denies the accusations of involvement.
“They say ‘give us the pastor’. You have a preacher (Gulen) there. Give him to us, and we will try (Brunson) and give him back,” Erdogan said in a televised speech.
The evangelical pastor was initially detained with his wife, suspected of activities “against national security”.
Norine Brunson was freed shortly after her detention, but her husband was charged with being a member of the Gulen movement in December.
They ran a Christian church in the Aegean city of Izmir.
This appears to be the first time that Erdogan has linked releasing Brunson to Ankara’s demand to have Gulen extradited.
– ‘Carefully consider’ –
Erdogan hit back at criticism of the Turkish judicial system after some American officials urged Ankara not to mix the cases of Gulen and Brunson.
“What does that mean? That you have a judiciary, but we do not have a judiciary?” Erdogan asked with heavy irony.
“The person here (Brunson) is being tried. But the one over there with you (Gulen) is not being tried! He lives in a mansion in Pennsylvania!
“It is easier for you (the United States) to hand him over, you could give him right away,” Erdogan added.
A decree in late August gave Erdogan the power to extradite foreigners in exchange for Turks under arrest or convicted abroad in “situations where it is necessary for national security or in the country’s interests”.
Norine Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for over 20 years with her husband, met with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his visit to Ankara in March.
Last month, Tillerson said Brunson had been “wrongfully imprisoned” in Turkey.
Turkey had hoped for a resurgence in relations with its NATO ally when Donald Trump assumed the presidency.
But ties remain strained by a series of disputes, notably over the US support for a Syrian Kurdish militia Ankara deems to be a terror group.
In updated travel advice published on Thursday, the US State Department urged citizens to “carefully consider the need to travel to Turkey at this time.”
Without mentioning the Brunson case, it said that under the state of emergency imposed after the coup bid “Turkish authorities have detained US citizens without granting access to lawyers or family members.”
It warned that delays or denial of consular access to detained US citizens “have become more common” and the US mission has no access to arrested US-Turkish dual nationals.