Erdogan sanctions US officials in tit-for-tat row over pastor
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Erdogan sanctions US officials in tit-for-tat row over pastor

Turkish president retaliates against measures by Trump administration, urges US to drop ‘hot-tempered attitude,’ come to its ‘good senses’

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announces plan of action for the first 100 days of his new presidency, in Ankara, Turkey, Friday, August 3, 2018. (AP/Burhan Ozbilici)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announces plan of action for the first 100 days of his new presidency, in Ankara, Turkey, Friday, August 3, 2018. (AP/Burhan Ozbilici)

Turkey’s president said Saturday the country will freeze the assets of two United States officials in retaliation for sanctions against Turkey’s justice and interior ministers over the detention of an American pastor, while attempting a conciliatory tone.

Turkey’s holding of pastor Andrew Brunson on terror-related charges for almost two years has sparked one of the most intense crises between the NATO allies in years.

Speaking in Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey had been “patient” since the US Treasury sanctions imposed Wednesday, but ordered authorities to “freeze the assets of America’s justice and interior ministers in Turkey, if there are any.” It is unclear who that would affect, due to differing cabinet roles in the United States from Turkey, or if the intended officials even have any holdings in Turkey.

Erdogan called the sanctions a “serious disrespect towards Turkey” and accused the US of hypocrisy for demanding the release of Brunson. But Erdogan also attempted to strike a conciliatory tone, insisting that Turkey did not want to see a “lose-lose” scenario emerge in ties with the United States.

“We don’t want to be a party to lose-lose games. Moving political and judicial disputes into an economic dimension will be harmful for both sides,” he said.

He also called for a return to the two countries’ partnership, saying, “We think there is no problem we cannot solve with the American administration.” He said he hoped the US would drop its “hot-tempered attitude and return to its good senses” as diplomats were working to put behind disputes.

Brunson, jailed in December 2016, is now under home detention. He is facing a 15-year sentence if convicted of the charges of “committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member,” references to outlawed Kurdish militants and the network of a US-based Muslim cleric blamed for a failed coup attempt. He could receive another 20 years if he is found guilty of espionage. Brunson denies the charges.

Top US officials, including President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, have said there is no evidence against Brunson and demanded his release.

“Brunson is an innocent man, there is no credible evidence against him,” Pence said earlier this week.

US pastor Andrew Craig Brunson escorted by Turkish plain clothes police officers arrives at his house on July 25, 2018 in Izmir. (AFP PHOTO)

Trump said on Twitter last week that the pastor’s detention was “a total disgrace.” One of Brunson’s attorneys is Jay Sekulow, who also represents Trump in the Russia investigation.

US senators previously pushed to block the sale of F-35 jets to Turkey, citing Brunson’s detention as one instance of Erdogan’s disregard for the rule of law.

Erdogan has previously linked Brunson’s return to the US to the extradition of cleric Fethullah Gulen, the cleric Turkey’s government holds responsible for a failed July 2016 military coup.

In this July 2016 photo, Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen speaks to members of the media at his compound in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Chris Post)

Gulen, who denies orchestrating the coup attempt, lives in Pennsylvania. Turkish requests for his arrest and extradition have not been granted.

Brunson served as pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, a small Protestant congregation, and has lived in Turkey for 23 years. He was detained by Turkish forces in the aftermath of the failed coup. The indictment against him contends he worked to convert Kurds to Christianity to sow discord in Turkey.

More than 77,000 people were arrested across Turkey after the government declared a state of emergency following the failed 2016 coup. The crackdown has targeted journalists, activists, and opposition figures.

Brunson rejected evidence against him during a recent hearing, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency.

“I believe in and support Turkey’s territorial integrity,” he told the court. “I forgive those who lie and bear false witness against me.”

Brunson’s case has been adjourned until October 12.

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