Vice President Mike Pence said on Thursday that if Turkey does not take immediate action to free Andrew Craig Brunson, “the United States of America will impose significant sanctions on Turkey”.
“Brunson is an innocent man, there is no credible evidence against him,” Pence said.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu immediately shot back: “No one dictates Turkey. We will never tolerate threats from anybody.”
Noone dictates Turkey. We will never tolerate threats from anybody. Rule of law is for everyone; no exception.
— Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu (@MevlutCavusoglu) July 26, 2018
Brunson, 50, an evangelical Christian pastor originally from North Carolina, was released from jail to serve house arrest because of “health problems” on Wednesday after spending more than a year in confinement, according to Turkey’s official news agency, Anadolu.
President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter later Thursday the US “will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson”.
“He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!”
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. He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2018
Neither Trump nor Pence elaborated on the type of sanctions the US could impose.
If convicted, Brunson faces up to 15 years in prison for “committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member”. He could receive another 20 years if he is found guilty of espionage.
Brunson strongly denies the charges. He rejected evidence against him during a recent hearing, according to Anadolu.
“I believe in and support Turkey’s territorial integrity,” he told the court. “I forgive those who lie and bear false witness against me.”
The case, which was adjourned until October 12, has strained ties between NATO allies Turkey and the US.
“The US administration’s statements and its use of threatening language against Turkey, a NATO ally, is unacceptable,” presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said in a statement.
“The United States must reconsider its approach and adopt a constructive position before inflicting further damage to its own interests and its alliance with Turkey.”
The threat of sanctions prompted a downturn in Turkey’s financial markets. There was no immediate comment from US legislators who have threatened to withhold weapons sales to Turkey as strains have escalated over Brunson’s detention.
The Christian right, an important component of Trump and Pence’s voting base, has been pressuring the administration on the Brunson case.
On Wednesday, Brunson was escorted out of prison in the coastal city of Izmir and left in a convoy of cars. His lawyer said he was ordered to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet.
US and Turkish officials had been working on a deal that would lead to Brunson’s release, and Washington had expected him to be freed at his trial last week, a source in the US familiar with developments told the Reuters news agency.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has previously linked Brunson’s return to the US to the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim leader Turkey’s government holds responsible for the failed July 2016 military coup.
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.