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How did the jailing of a US pastor lead to sanctions on Turkey?

Nearly two years after Turkey detained Andrew Craig Brunson, the issue escalated into a crisis between NATO allies. How did it unfold?
Brunson was arrested on December 2016 in Turkey's western city of Izmir.

The decision by Donald Trump's administration to impose sanctions on two senior ministers in the Turkish government is the kind of action usually reserved for enemy states.

How did a spat over the arrest of a US pastor, Andrew Craig Brunson, in Turkey escalate into the most serious diplomatic clash between two longstanding Nato allies in decades?

After the coup attempt in July 2016, Turkey submitted an extradition request to the US for Fetullah Gulen, leader of the Gulen movement, which is blamed by the Turkish government for orchestrating the failed coup. 

The US authorities said legal evidence was required for any extradition and the judiciary would make a decision.

With Washingon’s reluctance to agree to extradition, Gulen became a source of tension between the two NATO allies, leading to the arrest of US citizens in Turkey, including Brunson.

7 October 2016

Pastor Brunson of the Dirilis (Resurrection) church in Izmir and a US citizen who has lived in Turkey since 1993, is detained in Izmir after he was summoned to the police station.

9 December 2016

Pastor Brunson is formally arrested in Izmir, on accusation of “cooperating with the FETO and PKK terror groups, helping those groups when they try to topple the democratic government and to divide the country.”

16 May 2017

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits Washington, with the US investigation of Turkish state lender Halkbank over alleged Iran sanctions-busting - another source of tension between the two countries - also on his agenda. In his meeting with Erdogan, US President Donald Trump talks about the Brunson case. Later, the White House releases a statement saying Trump asked Turkey to free Brunson and send him back to the US.

29 September 2017

President Erdogan signals that Turkey could release Brunson if the US meets its demand to extradite Gulen: “They tell us to give the pastor back. You have one pastor [Gulen] as well. Give him to us," Erdogan says. "Then we will try him [Brunson] and give him to you. The pastor we have is on trial. Yours is not – he is living in Pennsylvania. You can give him up easily. You can give him right away," he adds.

US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert answers: "I can’t imagine that we would go down that road.”

8 October 2017

The US suspends visa services for Turkish citizens over the arrests of Brunson and Metin Topuz. Topuz is an employee in the US consulate in Istanbul, and was arrested on the same charges as Brunson on 25 September. Turkey retaliates with the suspension of visa services the same day.

28 December 2017

The US and Turkey resume visa services after talks. According to the statement by the US embassy in Ankara, Turkey promises that local staff of the embassy and consulates will not be detained or arrested for performing their official duties and that it would inform the US in advance if it intends to detain or arrest any local staff.

The Turkish embassy in Washington, however, releases a statement saying “we would like to emphasise that Turkey is a state of law, and that our government has not provided any assurances concerning the ongoing judicial processes."

3 January 2018

A US court finds Hakan Atilla, deputy CEO of Turkey's Halkbank, guilty on five counts, including violating US sanctions on Iran. Later on 16 May, a US judge sentences Hakan Atilla to 32 months in prison.

16 April 2018

Pastor Brunson’s trial starts. He denies all accusations of espionage and supporting any terror organisations. He faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted: 15 years for committing crimes on behalf of terrorist organisations as a non-member, and up to 20 years for political or military espionage. Brunson is accused of carrying out these activities under the guise of conducting missionary work.

17 April 2018

US President Donald Trump posts a tweet regarding the Brunson case, saying “Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason. They call him a spy, but I am more a spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!”

18 April 2018

US Vice President Mike Pence retweets Trump’s post and adds: “Spoke to Pastor Brunson’s wife this week. Assured her of our prayers & POTUS & I are monitoring his trial in Turkey. Pastor Brunson is a good & godly man who should be reunited w/ his family, friends & congregation. It’s time the Turkish govt release him.”

18 July 2018

Third hearing of the Brunson case was held in Izmir, after the second one on 7 May. The court decides to keep him behind bars. The hearing will continue on 12 October. The court’s decision immediately raised tension between two countries.

19 July 2018

US President Trump tweets again regarding the case, urging his Turkish counterpart to release the pastor: “A total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected US pastor, Andrew Brunson, from prison. He has been held hostage far too long. @RT_Erdogan should do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father. He has done nothing wrong, and his family needs him!”

The same day, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy says in a press conference that the Brunson case was an ongoing legal process. “This judicial process is conducted on the principle of the rule of law. Turkey is a state of law. [The court’s] decision should be considered within this framework,” he adds.

23 July 2018

US Senate and House of Representatives negotiators reach an agreement on a defence policy bill which prohibits the transfer of F-35 jets to Turkey, despite the country being one of the co-producers, partly due to the continuing arrest of Brunson.

Ankara denies any problems with the transfer of F-35 jets since it has paid its dues.

25 July 2018

After an objection by Brunson’s lawyer, the court in Izmir decides to move Brunson from prison to house arrest, citing health. He is ordered to wear an electronic bracelet at all times and banned from travelling outside of Turkey.

In response, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomes the move but says it’s not enough: “We have seen no credible evidence against Mr Brunson, and call on Turkish authorities to resolve his case immediately in a transparent and fair manner."

26 July 2018

Vice President Pence speaks in a religious freedom conference, warning Turkey over the Brunson case: “To President Erdogan and the Turkish government, I have a message on behalf of the president of the United States of America: release Pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences.”

Later same day, Trump posts another tweet, declaring the US will impose sanctions against Turkey.

In response, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu says no one can give orders to Turkey. The Turkish presidency issues a statement later, underlining the common NATO interests of the two allies.

27 July 2018

According to Turkish media, a deal has been agreed between Trump and Erdogan for the release of Brunson, in exchange for Hakan Atilla to be sent to a Turkish prison to serve his sentence, and to limit the fine that will be imposed on Halkbank for violating the Iran sanctions, and also the release of Turkish citizen Ebru Ozkan from Israeli prison.

Israel releases Ozkan, who had been arrested for alleged ties to the Palestinian group Hamas - charges that she denied. The Washington Post also wrote about the bargain over Ozkan and Brunson.

President Erdogan denies the claims.

31 July 2018

The court again rejects Brunson’s appeal to be released from house arrest, citing that “the strong criminal suspicions against the suspect have not changed their nature.”

1 August 2018

The Trump administration imposes sanctions on Turkey’s justice and Interior ministers over the pastor’s detention. The measures announced by the US Department of the Treasury block the assets of Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu in the US and prohibit American citizens from "engaging in transactions with them", because “they are the leaders of organisations that have engaged in serious human rights abuse.”

Turkey's foreign ministry says it will retaliate against Washington's decision, calling it a "hostile stance". It urges Trump to reconsider the sanctions.

Gul writes on Twitter. "I don’t have any assets or money in the US nor in any other countries. Maybe I’ll buy an olive grove in my hometown in Gaziantep?"

Soylu tweets: "We have something in America; it is Feto and we will not let it stay there," referring to Gulen's movement.

The Turkish lira, which has been in decline against the dollar for most of 2018, falls to a record low of five to the dollar on Wednesday after dropping 1.7 percent following the sanctions announcement. 

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