The Brunson affair in Turkey-US relations
A criminal court in İzmir ruled on July 25 that American Pastor Andrew Brunson could be moved from jail to house arrest with an electronic ankle bracelet and a restriction on leaving Turkey. The court justified the decision by saying the evidence in the indictment against Brunson had been complete and house arrest would be better considering his health condition.
Later in the day, Brunson was taken from prison to his home in İzmir, where he has been living with his wife for the last 20 years. The evangelical pastor had been indicted on charges of having links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ), who Ankara blames for the failed coup in 2016 and has been asking for the extradition of United States-resident Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen.
Only a week ago on July 18, the same court had decided Brunson’s arrest (over the last 20 months) should continue because there was incomplete evidence and the suspect could escape from Turkey. The question is, what kind of evidence, that has unable to be attained in 20 months, found its way to the court during the last week. Brunson’s lawyer İsmail Cem Halavurt had applied to the court before for his release due to health conditions. Philip Kosnett, the Chargé d’Affair of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara visited Brunson on July 26 and did not report of any particular deterioration in his health condition.
I am not writing this to question the court for not keeping Brunson in prison; I am for a quick and fair trial for everyone and I think long arrest periods challenge the delivery of justice. But, what I want to ask is what has changed over the last week that has altered the judges’ decisions?
When we have a look at the issues related to Brunson in the last week, we can only see political issues involving Turkey-U.S. relations.
Following the court ruling on July 18, U.S. President Donald Trump had said on Twitter on July 19 that he saw the continuation of the arrest as a “total disgrace” and called on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey to “do something to free” Brunson. The answer from Ankara was the usual: It was a decision by an independent Turkish court and the government could not intervene.
On July 23, U.S. Senate and House negotiators reached an agreement on a defense policy bill that includes a number of provisions, including temporarily barring the transfer of F-35 jets to the co-producer Turkey, due to the continuing arrest of Brunson and partly due to the Turkish decision to buy the Russian S-400 air defense system.
On July 24, Ankara denied there was any problem with the delivery of F-35s, since Turkey was paying its dues as a partner. It was obvious the mood on July 11 had changed, when Trump reportedly told Erdoğan during the NATO Summit in Brussels that he was inclined to turn down the Congressional suggestion to impose an arms embargo to Turkey.
On July 25, the İzmir court decided to move Brunson from prison to his house. The first response from the U.S. was from the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said it was a good news but not enough.
On July 26, a few hours after Kosnett’s visit to Brunson, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence broadcasted a strong message on Twitter where he said: “If Turkey does not take immediate action to free Pastor Andrew Brunson and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until this innocent man of faith is free.” Minutes later the heavy message was almost repeated by Trump.
Almost an hour after Trump, it was first the Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu who strongly reacted and told that no one could give orders to Turkey. Then it was a statement by the Presidency, drawing American attention to NATO interests in common, as an indirect counter-threat. And finally President Erdoğan took a different angle and said whenever Turkey cooperated with Russia on something, it makes “certain people jealous.”
Erdoğan is in South Africa to join the BRICS meeting, despite not being a member, upon a special invitation by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Brunson’s Turkish lawyer has applied to the court once again for his complete release or at least for the removal of his ankle bracelet for more relaxed conditions during his house arrest. Perhaps the independent court will alter its ruling once again and release the pastor this time.