Explaining it doesn’t pay ransom for hostages, the White House rejected an offer by Turkey to free American pastor Andrew Brunson in exchange for forgiveness of billions of dollars in U.S. fines on a Turkish bank.
The Wall Street Journal reported Washington has warned Turkey that if it doesn’t release Brunson – who has been accused without evidence of plotting a government overthrow – it could impose additional sanctions this week.
A White House official told the Journal a “real NATO ally wouldn’t have arrested Brunson in the first place.”
Brunson, a North Carolina native who has lived in Turkey for more than 23 years, has been accused of assisting the coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
A Turkish high criminal court on Friday rejected Brunson’s appeal to be released from house arrest and travel abroad.
If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison for “committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member” and an additional 20 years for “espionage.”
President Trump, who already has doubled steel and aluminum tariffs on Turkey, tweeted a response to Turkey’s ransom offer.
“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,” he wrote. “We will pay nothing for the release of an innocent man, but we are cutting back on Turkey!”
In March, Brunson was formally charged with espionage and ties to terrorist organizations, including the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party
The U.S. also has sanctioned Turkey’s ministers of justice and interior in response to Ankara’s treatment of Brunson.
Erdogan reacted to the sanctions in a New York Times op-ed earlier this month, warning that failure “to reverse this trend of unilateralism and disrespect will require us to start looking for new friends and allies.”
House arrest ‘critical first step’
In late July, one day after Congress advanced a bill to ban the sale of new fighter jets to Turkey, Turkey upgraded Brunson’s custody to house arrest.
In the defense bill heading for a vote in the House and Senate, lawmakers propose banning delivery of fifth-generation F-35 fighter jets to Turkey. The legislation demands the release of Brunson as well as any other “U.S. citizens wrongfully or unlawfully detained in Turkey.”
The American Center for Law and Justice, which represents Brunson’s family, called the move to house arrest “a critical first step that we believe will result in the freedom of Pastor Andrew so he can return to the United States and be reunited with his family.”
A court in Izmir, Turkey has ordered Brunson to remain in custody until an Oct. 12 hearing.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent panel established by Congress, said the move to house arrest is “not enough.” The commission recommended that if Turkey does not release Brunson, the Trump administration and Congress “should respond strongly and swiftly with targeted sanctions against the authorities responsible.”
“The Turkish government has deprived this innocent man of his due process rights and liberty for too long, and it must completely release him,” said Kristina Arriaga, USCIRF’s vice chairman.