Yellow Ribbon Project

Treasury Sanctions Two Turkish Officials Over Imprisonment of Andrew Brunson

Andrew Brunson, a 50-year-old evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, N.C., waves as he leaves a prison outside Izmir, Turkey, on July 25, 2018, bound for house arrest until his trial. (DHA via AP)

WASHINGTON — The Treasury Department today sanctioned Turkey’s Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gul and Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu for playing “leading roles in the organizations responsible for the arrest and detention” of pastor Andrew Brunson, a North Carolina native who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades.

“These officials serve as leaders of Turkish government organizations responsible for implementing Turkey’s serious human rights abuses, and are being targeted pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13818, ‘Blocking the Property of Persons Involved in Serious Human Rights Abuse or Corruption,’ which builds upon Treasury’s Global Magnitsky Act authorities,” Treasury said in its announcement, adding that both Gul and Soylu are targeted “for being the leader of an entity that has engaged in, or whose members have engaged in, serious human rights abuse.”

As a result of the sanctions, U.S. persons can’t engage in transactions with either man and any property of theirs within U.S. jurisdiction is blocked. Gul responded by saying he doesn’t have any interests in the U.S.

“Pastor Brunson’s unjust detention and continued prosecution by Turkish officials is simply unacceptable,” said Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. “President Trump has made it abundantly clear that the United States expects Turkey to release him immediately.”

Turkey vowed retaliation in a statement issued today by their foreign ministry. “We strongly protest the sanctions announced by the U.S. Treasury Department,” read the written statement. “This aggressive stance that does not serve any interest will be retaliated in the same, without delay.”

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu tweeted, “We will not be able to resolve our problems unless the U.S. administration realizes that it cannot reach its unlawful demands through this method.”

Brunson, who was moved from prison to house arrest last month, faces 35 years in prison after the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan swept up the longtime Turkey resident, along with several other Americans, in his post-coup purges. Since July 15, 2016, the Turkish government has arrested 80,147 people on muddled charges of being tied to Fethullah Gülen, a Pennsylvania-based moderate political foe of Erdoğan. As the regime has raised the topic of seeking Gülen’s extradition with the U.S. government, it’s believed the Americans have been detained as potential swap leverage.

Brunson and his wife, Norine, raised their family in Turkey and ministered through the Protestant Izmir Resurrection Church in the Aegean coast city. In October 2016, after living in the country for 23 years, they found a note on their door telling them to report to the migration management office for what they thought would be a visit connected to their visa renewal. Instead, officials detained the couple. They did not shut down the church, which has continued operating under one of Brunson’s ministry partners, or arrest other members.

Norine was eventually released and allowed to stay in the country. The pastor, though, was sent to jail in December 2016 on a hazy accusation of “membership in an armed terrorist organization.”

The indictment released in March charges that Brunson is linked to both the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and Gülen, whom Erdoğan blames for the July 2016 coup attempt. Prosecutors want Brunson to serve 20 years for espionage and 15 years for “committing crimes on behalf of terror organizations without being a member.” In May, Turkish state media reported that a secret witness described as a former member of the church has been claiming that Brunson funneled assistance to Kurds. He has denied the charges, and his next hearing is scheduled for Oct. 12.

The administration has not made clear why it only focused on Brunson’s case and not other U.S. citizens unjustly detained in Turkey, including NASA Mission to Mars scientist Serkan Gölge and professor Ismail Kul. Turkey also holds three U.S. Foreign Service nationals — Hamza Uluçay, Metin Topuz, and Nazmi Mete Canturk — diplomatic workers who have given decades of service to America.

Gölge and his family were visiting his parents in Turkey in July 2016 when he was arrested in the regime’s post-coup sweeps; he was recently sentenced to 7.5 years in prison. He has reportedly suffered harsh treatment behind bars because he refused Turkish authorities’ request to use his NASA position to spy for the Turkish government.

His wife, Kubra, also a U.S. citizen, has been forced to sell the family home in Houston to try to make ends meet. “When I read the newspapers, I feel frustrated sometimes like they’re only trying to save Brunson but not us,” she told NBC News this week. Kubra has been banned from leaving Turkey with their sons, ages 2 and 7.

Kubra noted that an April letter signed by 66 senators warning Erdoğan of retaliatory action if Brunson isn’t released did not name any of the other U.S. hostages. “I feel frustrated; [Brunson’s] not the only guy whose life went down,” she said. “We are also citizens.”

Kul, a 45-year-old chemistry professor at Widener University in Pennsylvania who has lived in the U.S. for 25 years, was vacationing in Turkey when the coup attempt happened. He was detained in August 2016 and has been banned from leaving the country. “As an American citizen, I wish [the] president and vice president brought up our names,” Kul told NBC.

The administration began publicly highlighting Brunson’s case this spring. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at today’s briefing that President Trump has been “closely following the ongoing situation in Turkey involving Pastor Andrew Brunson.”

“We’ve seen no evidence that Pastor Brunson has done anything wrong, and we believe he is a victim of unfair and unjust detention by the government of Turkey,” she added, referring questions on the sanctions to the Treasury Department.

Trump tweeted in April, “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!”