Turkish Turmoil Is Tied to Fate of American Pastor

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Turkey freed U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson from prison and placed him under house arrest at his home in the port city of Izmir in July.

Turkey freed U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson from prison and placed him under house arrest at his home in the port city of Izmir in July.


Photo:

Reuters

WASHINGTON—Turkey’s economic woes have become inextricably entangled with the fate of one man:

Andrew Brunson,

an American pastor whose prolonged detention in Turkey on espionage charges has become a top concern for President Trump.

Months of fruitless negotiations over

Mr. Brunson’s

fate recently compelled the Trump administration to develop options for turning the screws on Turkey, an approach officials dubbed “a bullet a day” until Mr. Brunson was freed, according to people familiar with the discussions.

U.S. officials have repeatedly made it clear to their Turkish counterparts that the way to contain the damage—to Turkey’s economy and to U.S.-Turkish relations—is to free Mr. Brunson without delay.

But it remains unclear how the two sides can resolve the standoff. Some U.S. officials say that while heightened tariffs imposed Friday are not directly tied to the pastor’s fate, they want to use Turkey’s economic crisis to keep up the pressure.

“Turkey has little to gain from continuing to hold Pastor Brunson—and much to lose,” a spokesman for the White House National Security Council said Friday.

Mr. Brunson was detained by Turkish police in October 2016 as part of a sweeping crackdown following a failed military coup that July. The 50-year-old North Carolina native was charged with supporting two terrorist groups in Turkey, one accused of orchestrating the coup and another led by Kurdish separatists battling the Turkish military.

U.S. officials denounced the charges as a sham, and analysts say Turkish authorities have produced thin evidence to back up the accusations.

Mr. Brunson’s freedom became a top priority for Christian evangelicals in the U.S., a key support block for the president and Vice President

Mike Pence.

His cause also has attracted attention in Congress.

Jay Sekulow,

one of Mr. Trump’s top attorneys, represents Mr. Brunson. On Friday, he expressed hope while serving as guest host of

Sean Hannity’s

radio show that the U.S. and Turkey were “getting close to a resolution.”

Relations between the two countries have been strained for a while by Turkey’s demand that the U.S. deport Fethullah Gulen, the reclusive Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania who President

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

has accused of ordering the failed coup. U.S. officials have repeatedly rebuffed Turkey’s demands and said Ankara has failed to provide evidence to support its request. But Mr. Brunson’s case brought simmering tensions to a boil.

Initially, the Trump administration offered Turkey incentives. The White House convinced U.S. lawmakers to shelve a plan earlier this year that would have imposed sanctions on Turkey for holding Mr. Brunson.

The administration also let Turkey know that prosecutors had dropped charges filed against 11 of 15 bodyguards working for

Mr. Erdogan

who had been accused of beating protesters when the Turkish president came to Washington last year.

But the efforts produced no breakthroughs. Turkey held Mr. Brunson without charges until March, when prosecutors filed a 62-page indictment that accused the pastor of espionage, aiding terrorist groups and trying to convert Muslims.

After months of talks, U.S. officials thought they had reached an understanding with Turkey to free Mr. Brunson last month when he appeared in a Turkish court.

As Mr. Brunson’s hearing approached last month, Mr. Trump met Mr. Erdogan in Brussels at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit.

In private talks, Mr. Erdogan asked for Mr. Trump’s help in securing the release of a Turkish citizen who had been held by Israel for a month after being accused of trying to funnel money to Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian militant group, according to people familiar with the matter.

On July 14, Mr. Trump called Israeli Prime Minister

Benjamin Netanyahu

to ask him to free the Turkish citizen,

Ebru Ozkan,

these people said. Ms. Ozkan was deported to Turkey the next day.

Turkish officials denied that Mr. Erdogan had asked Mr. Trump for help with Israel.

Turkish officials expected the Trump administration to send

Mehmet Atilla,

a Turkish banker serving a 32-month prison term for evading U.S. sanctions against Iran, back to Turkey to complete his sentence, according to people familiar with the talks.

Turkey also expected the U.S. State Department to request leniency from the Treasury Department in imposing a potentially crippling fine on the Turkish bank ensnared in the sanctions evasion case, the people said.

Chances of a U.S.-Turkey agreement fell apart again when Turkey sought broader assurances that the U.S. would halt any further investigation of

Halkbank
,

the Turkish bank where

Mr. Atilla

worked. The Trump administration balked.

Later in July, when Mr. Brunson was sent back to prison after his court hearing, Mr. Trump blasted the decision on

Twitter

as a “total disgrace.”

On July 25, Turkey freed Mr. Brunson from prison and placed him under house arrest at his home in the port city of Izmir. That only made things worse. U.S. officials were again upset that he wasn’t sent home

“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Project at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It went from being a bureaucratic crisis to being a presidential one.”

Mr. Trump warned Turkey that day that he would respond.

“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,” Mr. Trump said in a tweet that day. “This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!”

Administration officials offered no objections last month when Congress moved to block plans to sell Turkey up to 100 of America’s advanced F-35 jet fighter.

Last week, the Trump administration accused Turkey’s justice and interior ministers of human rights abuses and imposed economic sanctions on both men, sending Turkey’s lira plunging.

While the two countries argued over Mr. Brunson’s fate, the U.S. said Monday it was introducing new penalties against Ankara. The next day, Turkish officials said they had a preliminary deal with the U.S. on Mr. Brunson and sent a delegation to Washington to try and end the impasse. The effort failed.

On Friday, Mr. Trump announced plans to heighten tariffs on Turkey while Turkish Finance Minister

Berat Albayark,

Mr. Erdogan’s son-in-law, was on stage at the presidential palace in Istanbul unveiling a new economic plan to try to reassure global markets.

Unless Mr. Brunson is released, the Trump administration is expected to take tougher steps against Turkey, including imposition of further sanctions.

“This is the tip of the iceberg,”

Mr. Cagaptay

said.

Write to Dion Nissenbaum at dion.nissenbaum@wsj.com

Appeared in the August 11, 2018, print edition as ‘Turkish Turmoil Tied to Pastor’s Fate.’