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EXCLUSIVE: Turkey ready to release pastor but US offering nothing

Turkey offered to release Brunson in exchange for leniency in Halkbank investigations or release of imprisoned executive, but US has refused
US pastor Andrew Brunson leave prison for house arrest in Izmir last month (Reuters)

ANKARA - Turkish diplomats have told the US government they are close to releasing Andrew Brunson, the imprisoned American pastor at the heart of the diplomatic row between the two countries, Middle East Eye can reveal.

But the Turks want more than the Americans have so far been willing to offer. Instead, the summer battle between the two NATO allies has continued on, throwing Turkey’s economy into crisis along with it - and with no public signs of an easy solution.

Washington warned on Thursday that it would impose more sanctions unless Brunson was released. In a tweet, US President Donald Trump called him "a great patriot hostage" and said the US would "pay nothing" for his release.

Turkey on Friday threatened to respond if the US levied further sanctions.

"We've already responded based on the World Trade Organisation rules and will continue to do so," Ruhsar Pekcan, Turkey's Minister of Trade, was quoted as saying by the state-run Anadolu news agency. 

And for the second time this week, a Turkish court on Friday rejected Brunson's appeal to be released.

Yet a high-level Turkish diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, has told MEE: “We know we have to solve the crisis at least for the sake of our economy and technically, it's possible for us to release Brunson.”

“But we need something in return after all those challenging comments between the US and Turkey,” he added.

Brunson, a missionary working in Turkey for more than 20 years, was arrested in December 2016, accused of backing the coup attempt that July against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

'We know we have to solve the crisis at least for the sake of our economy . . . but we need something in return'

- Turkish diplomatic source

His case was back in the headlines on 18 July when a Turkish judge in Izmir decided to keep Brunson in jail until his next hearing in October. In response, the US sanctioned Turkey’s justice and interior ministers.

Last week, a Turkish delegation headed to Washington as the two countries attempted to hammer out their differences with little success.

A day later, US President Donald Trump doubled the tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium, sending the lira into free-fall. Erdogan has retaliated this week, raising tariffs on a list of American products.

'We want to see some goodwill'

The Turkish diplomatic source, who is well-informed on the talks between the two countries, said that in order to stem the economic crisis, the government knows it will have to solve the diplomatic crisis with the US, but has struggled to negotiate a workable deal.

Specifically, during the trip to Washington last week, he said, the Turks offered a plan which would have seen Brunson released in exchange for leniency in two US government investigations into the Turkish state lender Halkbank.

The bank is being investigated over alleged Iran sanctions-busting, another source of tension between the two countries.

“We want to see some goodwill about the fate of these investigations. But the Trump administration said that their judiciary was independent and couldn’t promise anything,” the source said.

So then the Turkish side proposed the extradition of Mehmet Hakan Atilla, the deputy CEO of Halkbank who was sentenced in May to 32 months in prison after he was convicted of taking part in a scheme to help Iran evade US sanctions. 

Atilla shown in a court room sketch with his attorney Gerald J DiChiara this March (Reuters)
Atilla, who has already served 14 months of his sentence and is scheduled for release in 2019, could serve the remainder in Turkey, diplomats offered.

But they were told that the extradition would require at least a couple of months, leaving them without any demands that could be fulfilled, the source said.

“We told them that at least we have to see some goodwill, you have to promise us something. We asked for some time to find a win-win solution,” he said.

“But they were so clear about their stance. They told us to release Brunson immediately, they want him back in the US without any bargain. Otherwise, they would impose more sanctions on Turkey. So the delegation turned back to Ankara, but the communication never stopped.”

In the hands of presidents

Last Saturday, in a speech in the northeastern city of Rize, Erdogan scoffed at the American demands and said that the US had given Turkey an 8 August deadline to release Brunson.

“What are you doing? This is Turkey, Turkey! We are not servants, we are a country of 81 million that stand upright on our own legs!” he said.

When asked if the pastor could be released despite the lack of any promises by the US, the diplomatic source said: “The next hearing is on 12 October. The judges can release him then, but I expect some positive development for both sides before the date.

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“I can say we are trying to solve the problem very soon. But even if there is nothing in return, at least we have to be sure about their goodwill. We are trying very hard for it, talks are continuing nonstop.

“It’s a political issue now, not a judicial one anymore. And the talks are led by the presidents themselves, they will make the last decision,” he said.

The US State Department had not responded to MEE's request for comment by the time of publication.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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