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Angered At Pastor's Detention, U.S. Levels Sanctions Against Turkish Officials

Andrew Craig Brunson, seen flanked by two Turkish police officers in plainclothes in Izmir last week.
AFP/Getty Images
Andrew Craig Brunson, seen flanked by two Turkish police officers in plainclothes in Izmir last week.

Updated at 5:45 p.m. ET

The U.S. is imposing sanctions against two high-level Turkish officials, retaliating for what the Treasury Department calls the "unfair and unjust detention" of an American pastor in Izmir. The penalties announced Wednesday, which aim to punish the chiefs of Turkey's ministries of justice and the interior, mark a significant escalation in the recent frictions between the two key NATO allies.

But they are not altogether unexpected: Both President Trump and Vice President Pence have both lately threatened retaliation over the status of Andrew Brunson, whom Turkish authorities detained in October 2016. He has been charged with engaging in espionage and aiding terrorist groups.

The 50-year-old evangelical Presbyterian minister, who hails from North Carolina but has spent more than two decades in Turkey, was swept up in Ankara's wide-ranging crackdown after a failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now under house arrest, Brunson faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted of all charges.

And on Wednesday the Treasury Department laid blame for his ongoing trial primarily with Abdulhamit Gul, Turkey's justice minister, and Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu. The sanctions against them prohibit U.S. citizens from doing business with both men and block any of their property that rests within American jurisdiction.

"Pastor Brunson's unjust detention and continued prosecution by Turkish officials is simply unacceptable," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. "President Trump has made it abundantly clear that the United States expects Turkey to release him immediately."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also discussed the matter several times with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, according to State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert. And during a press briefing Tuesday, she noted that Brunson is not the only detained individual they're seeking to get released: She says the State Department has also been advocating on behalf of several locally hired personnel who were also swept up in the arrests after the attempted coup.

"Turkey knows our position well," she said Wednesday. "This has gone on far too long."

The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs promised Wednesday to retaliate with "an equivalent response" if the U.S. does not walk back "this wrong decision."

"There is no doubt that the decision, which disrespectfully intervenes with our judicial system, stands in contrast to the essence of our relations and will seriously damage the constructive efforts made in order to resolve problems between the two countries," the ministry added.

In a tweet translated by the state-run Anadolu news agency, Cavusoglu also vowed that the "US attempt to impose sanctions on our two ministers will not go unanswered."

Faced with pressure from U.S. officials last year, Erdogan suggested Brunson's release may depend on U.S. compliance with one of his own demands: the extradition of elderly Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan has repeatedly accused of organizing the 2016 coup from his compound in Pennsylvania, despite Gulen's denials.

""You have a pastor too," Erdogan said then. "You give us that one and we'll work with our judiciary and give back yours."

U.S. officials, for their part, show no inclination to accede to their NATO ally's demand, either. And they have had lawmakers' bipartisan backing in the campaign to obtain Brunson's release.

"Our fellow citizens aren't bargaining chips," Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said in a statement applauding the sanctions Wednesday. "Pastor Brunson is an innocent man. Turkey's charges are completely unjust and these new sanctions are absolutely warranted. President Erdogan ought to know that the United States expects more from a member of NATO. Free Pastor Brunson now."

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.