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Trump imposes sanctions on Turkish ministers over US pastor's detention

US targets Turkey's Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu
Andrew Brunson faces as many as 35 years in jail (AFP)

The United States imposed sanctions on two senior Turkish ministers on Wednesday over the continued detention of US pastor Andrew Brunson, in an escalation of diplomatic tensions between the two Nato countries.

President Donald Trump had threatened Ankara with "large sanctions" if Brunson, who is being held for alleged links with the 2016 coup plotters, was not released.

Wednesday's measures 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".

Late on Wednesday, Turkey's foreign ministry said it will retaliate against Washington's decision, calling it a "hostile stance".

It urged Trump to reconsider the sanctions.

"We call on the US administration to walk back from this wrong decision," the Turkish foreign ministry said.

Four of the largest Turkish political parties, the AKP, MHP, CHP and Iyi Party, released a joint statement condemning the sanctions, declaring that Turkey has the right to retaliate.

In a statement announcing the sanctions, the US Department of the Treasury said Gul and Soylu are the leaders of organisations that have engaged in "serious human rights abuse".

"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."

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

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders called Brunson's detention "unfair," saying that Trump had spoken with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the pastor.

"At the president's direction, the Department of the Treasury is sanctioning Turkey's minister of justice and minister of interior, both of whom played leading roles in the arrest and detention of Pastor Brunson," Sanders told reporters.

Gul, Turkey's justice minister, played down the direct effects of the sanctions.

"I don’t have any other dreams than to live and die in my country," he wrote 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?"

Brunson is accused of links to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist group by both Ankara and Washington. He is also charged with ties to the movement of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan blames for the failed coup.

Early on Thursday morning Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu tweeted: "We have something in America; it is Feto and we will not let it to stay there," referring to Gulen's movement.

Brunson, who was arrested in 2016 and is now under house arrest pending trial, denies Turkey's allegations. He faces as many as 35 years in jail if found guilty. The pastor has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years.

A Turkish court denied the pastor's appeal on Tuesday.

Last week, Ankara rebuked Trump's threats, which had been echoed by his Vice President Mike Pence.

"No one dictates to Turkey. We will never tolerate threats from anybody," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu posted on Twitter on Thursday after Trump's statement. "Rule of law is for everyone; no exception."

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Last month, Israel released Turkish tourist Ebru Ozkan who had been arrested for alleged ties to the Palestinian group Hamas - charges that she denied.

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that Trump asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a 14 July phone call to let Ozkan go in a "trade" for Brunson, who has spent 21 months in Turkish detention.

The move failed to secure Brunson's release.

Ankara had proposed a different trade that had been reportedly rejected by Washington: Brunson for Gulen.

"Give him [Gulen] to us, and we will try [Brunson] and give him back," Erdogan said in September.

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