WASHINGTON – The United States slapped sanctions on two Turkish officials Wednesday over an American pastor whom Turkey is trying on espionage and terrorism-related charges. Turkey said the action would harm relations between the two allies and vowed retaliation “without delay.”
President Donald Trump followed through on his warning last week to impose sanctions against Turkey, a key NATO ally, for its treatment of Andrew Craig Brunson in a case that has strained U.S.-Turkish relations.
He stands accused of carrying out activities on behalf of two organizations that Ankara considers terrorist groups. One is led by the U.S.-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, who Turkish authorities say was behind a 2016 failed coup. The other is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
He denies the charges, and his defense team argues that the case is built on questionable witness statements. His next hearing is set for Oct. 12.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had said his government wouldn’t back down and was willing to “go its own way” if the U.S. did act.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the sanctions by the Treasury Department would target Turkey’s justice and interior ministers, whose agencies she said were responsible for the pastor’s arrest and detention.
“We’ve seen no evidence that Pastor Brunson has done anything wrong, and we believe he is a victim of unfair and unjust attention by the government of Turkey,” Sanders said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Turkish government had refused to release Brunson “after numerous conversations between President Trump and President Erdogan,” as well as conversations he had with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavosuglo.
“President Trump concluded that these sanctions are the appropriate action,” Pompeo said.
Ankara called on the U.S. to reverse its decision and promised to “respond in kind without delay” against what it described as an aggressive stance by the Trump administration. It did not elaborate on possible measures.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted, “The U.S. attempt to impose sanctions will not remain without an answer.”
A Foreign Ministry statement called the sanctions a “disrespectful intervention in our legal system” that would harm “the constructive efforts toward resolving problems between the two countries.”
The Turkish lira dropped to an all-time low against the dollar following the announcement of the sanctions, trading at just over 5 lira against the dollar.
Brunson, 50, was arrested in December 2016 following the coup attempt and charged with “committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member” and espionage. He was recently released to home detention. He faces a prison sentence of up to 35 years if he is convicted on both counts.
The evangelical pastor, from North Carolina, has lived in Turkey for 23 years and led the Izmir Resurrection Church.
Under the sanctions to be imposed by the Treasury Department, any property or interest in property belonging to Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul or Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu within U.S. jurisdiction would be blocked. Americans would generally be prohibited from doing business with them.
Gul shrugged off the decision, writing on Twitter that he had no assets outside Turkey and that he dreamed of owning “a small olive grove” in his Turkish hometown.
Erdogan has denied speculation that there had been an agreement to swap Brunson for Turkish citizens being held abroad, particularly 27-year-old Ebru Ozkan. Ozkan had been detained by Israel on terrorism-related charges, but was deported this month.
The Turkish leader previously connected Brunson’s return to the U.S. to the extradition of Gulen.
Erdogan has also warned that Turkey would seek international arbitration if the United States refused to deliver F-35 fighter jets in retaliation.