Erdogan hints at plan to swap jailed US pastor for Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen
Washington - In a move condemned by critics as an indication that Turkey is holding Westerners hostage, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered to free a US pastor jailed in his country if Washington extradites a suspected coup plotter.
Erdogan’s proposal, immediately rebuffed by the US State Department, could add to existing strains between Turkey and the United States and cement a perception in the United States and Europe that Turkey is moving away from the West.
Ankara and Washington are already at odds over US support for Syrian Kurds and Turkey’s plans to buy a Russian missile defence system that would be incompatible with weapons used by other NATO countries.
In a speech September 28 in Ankara, Erdogan mentioned Andrew Brunson, a Protestant pastor from the United States who led a small church congregation in the western Turkish city of Izmir before he was arrested in October 2016. Turkish news reports indicate that prosecutors in Izmir accuse Brunson of being a follower of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric based in the United States who is seen by Erdogan as the instigator of last year’s coup attempt in Turkey. Gulen said he played no role in the coup.
Erdogan said Washington refused to hand over Gulen despite documents and other evidence provided by Ankara, while asking Turkey to free Brunson. “They say: ‘Give us the pastor,’” Erdogan said about the Americans. “You also have a pastor,” he added in reference to Gulen. “Give him to us, then we will put the other one on trial and hand him over.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert rejected Erdogan’s idea. “I can’t imagine that we would go down that road,” she said. Nauert stressed that the United States would continue to call for Brunson’s release. “He was wrongfully imprisoned in Turkey,” she said.
US President Donald Trump raised the issue in meetings with Erdogan but there was no sign that Brunson, who has faced unsubstantiated accusations in the Turkish media, could be released soon. One pro-government newspaper suggested Brunson would have become head of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) if the coup attempt in July 2016 had been successful.
Brunson is not the only Westerner held in a Turkish jail. Germany said approximately a dozen of its citizens, including journalists and a human rights activist, have been arrested in Turkey. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel accused Ankara of holding Deniz Yucel, a newspaper reporter with dual German-Turkish citizenship, “hostage.”
Unconfirmed reports by German media said Turkish officials brought up the idea of a swap of German suspects with Turkish dissidents in confidential talks with German counterparts earlier this year.
Turkey said Germany is sheltering hundreds of extremists bent on the destruction of the Turkish state, including Kurdish militants, Gulen followers and anti-Erdogan journalists. In the latest case that attracted attention in Germany, a prosecutor in the south-eastern Turkey city of Diyarbakir asked the Justice Ministry in Ankara to start efforts to have Can Dundar, a prominent Erdogan critic and former editor of a Turkish opposition newspaper who fled to Berlin last year, extradited from Germany.
Suspicions that the Erdogan government might be preparing to swap jailed Westerners with Turkish dissidents abroad strengthened when a decree gave the Turkish president the power to exchange prisoners in Turkey with Turkish citizens in other countries if it was in Turkey’s national interest to do so.
By going public with his offer to trade Brunson for Gulen, Erdogan risked further tensions with Turkey’s partners in the West. “Erdogan’s offer of swapping Andrew Brunson is an unfortunate confession by the Turkish president that the American pastor is a pawn held hostage by Ankara,” Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish lawmaker who works for the Washington think-tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said via e-mail. “This admission will further tarnish Turkey’s global image as a country that borrows tactics from the playbook of Tehran and Pyongyang.”
Erdemir added that Erdogan’s speech could increase scepticism towards Turkey in the US Congress, where lawmakers have expressed outrage over violence by Erdogan’s bodyguards in a brawl during a visit by the Turkish president to Washington in May. The Trump administration has withdrawn a plan to allow US gunmaker Sig Sauer to sell handguns and ammunition worth $1.2 million to Erdogan’s security detail, following calls from congressional leaders to cancel the project.
“At this point, it wouldn’t be surprising if the US Congress pushes harder for the government to start imposing sanctions against Turkish officials responsible for Ankara’s hostage diplomacy,” Erdemir said.
In another sign of Turkish-American discord, Erdogan’s government is going ahead with the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system. Erdogan hosted Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Ankara for talks about the deal and about the crisis in Syria, where Russia and Turkey are planning joint military action to secure the province of Idlib.