The US Treasury Department is sanctioning NATO ally Turkey’s ministers of justice and interior in response to the detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday.
“We’ve seen no evidence that Pastor Brunson has done anything wrong,” Sanders said, calling Brunson’s detention “unfair and unjust.”
Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have discussed Brunson’s imprisonment “on several occasions,” said Sanders, who added that the US President is “not happy with Turkey’s decision not to release” the pastor.
The two ministers will have any assets and properties under US jurisdiction blocked and US persons will be prohibited from engaging in financial transactions with the ministers.
The US Treasury announced that the US is sanctioning the two Turkish officials, Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gul and Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu, for their role in Brunson’s arrest and detention.
The statement said, “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.”
“Pastor Brunson’s unjust detention and continued prosecution by Turkish officials is simply unacceptable,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said. “President Trump has made it abundantly clear that the United States expects Turkey to release him immediately.”
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu responded on Twitter, saying, “the effort by the US to impose sanctions on our two ministers will not go unanswered. We cannot solve our problems until the US administration understands that it cannot get its unlawful demands with this method.”
The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs also put out a strong response, stating, “we vehemently protest the sanctions decision announced by the US Treasury Department. … A reciprocal response will be given without delay to this aggressive attitude which serves no purpose.” The ministry also called on the US to step back from what it called a “wrongful decision.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to meet with Cavusoglu on Friday in Singapore and US European Commander General Curtis M. Scaparrotti is in Ankara this week for meetings with his Turkish counterparts.
“The Turkish government refused to release Pastor Brunson after numerous conversations between President Trump and President Erdogan, and my conversations with Foreign Minister Cavusoglu. President Trump concluded that these sanctions are the appropriate action,” Pompeo said Wednesday.
The “unjust detention” must end, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert added. “Turkey knows our position well. This has gone on far too long,” she said.
Brunson was arrested in 2016 during the Turkish government’s crackdown following an attempted coup. In March, he was formally charged with espionage and having links to terrorist organizations. If convicted, he faces up to 35 years in prison. He maintains his innocence.
Last week, he was released to house arrest and ordered to wear an electronic monitoring device.
Following his move to house arrest, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence threatened to impose “large sanctions” if Turkey did not return Brunson to the US.
“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.
“He is suffering greatly,” Trump added. “This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!”
A senior US official told CNN last week that Erdogan and Trump had agreed to a deal that would see Israel release an imprisoned Turkish national in exchange for Turkey freeing Brunson.
But on Sunday, Erdogan denied any such deal and warned that Turkey would not be bullied into releasing Brunson by Trump.
CNN’s Michael Callahan, Gul Tuysuz and Ryan Browne contributed to this report.