U.S. Sanctions Two Turkish Ministers Over Pastor’s Detention

The U.S. imposed sanctions on two Turkish ministers over the continued detention of an American pastor who President Donald Trump has said should be released, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

The sanctions target Turkey’s Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gul and Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu, both of whom “played leading roles in the organizations responsible for the arrest and detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson,” the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement Wednesday.

“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,” Sanders said. She added that the sanctions were imposed “at the president’s direction.”

The sanctions against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government highlight the disconnect between Washington and Ankara as they try to negotiate a way out of the deadlock. The move is the first since Trump hinted at the penalties last week in a tweet, drawing a public rebuke from Turkey, a NATO ally which hosts a base the U.S. relies on to fight terrorists in Syria.

The sanctions are being issued under the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016, which allows the U.S. government to target individuals, companies or other entities involved in corruption or human-rights abuses anywhere in the world. Under the sanctions, all assets in the U.S. belonging to the two ministers are blocked, and U.S. entities are prohibited from doing business with them.

The lira slumped to a record low Wednesday as the U.S. imposed the penalties.

“The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being,” Trump tweeted on July 26. “He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!”

Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s spokesman, said Tuesday that Turkey would retaliate to any U.S. sanctions imposed over Brunson’s case.

Brunson, who was first detained in 2016, was moved into house arrest last month. He faces trial on charges of involvement in a July 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan’s government.

U.S. ‘Hostages’

Within the State Department, Brunson and other prisoners including NASA scientist Serkan Golge and three Turkish employees of the U.S. mission to Turkey are referred to as “hostages.” The U.S. says they’re innocent and being held by Turkey for the sole purpose of extracting concessions on other points of tension in the U.S.-relationship.

The two countries have quarreled over a panoply of foreign policy issues that have driven the onetime allies to outright hostility. Foremost among them are differences over policy in Syria and Iran, Turkish suspicions about the U.S. response to a 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan, and the Turkish leader’s budding friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The U.S. is also considering a hefty fine on state-run lender Turkiye Halk Bankasi AS for its role in evading U.S. sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear program, and it would impose sanctions on Turkey when it receives delivery of a missile defense system from Russia, expected in 2019.

From Turkey’s side, the U.S. has also done little to extradite an Islamic cleric and former Erdogan ally, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania.

As of last week, the Americans thought they had a deal that would bring Brunson home, according to accounts by officials on both sides of the matter. In return for the release of the evangelical pastor, the U.S. administration would recommend a lenient fine on Halkbank. The U.S. also offered to send Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a former executive at the bank who’s been jailed in the U.S., back to Turkey to serve out the rest of his term.

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