Turkey denies Turkish citizen jailed in Israel was traded for US pastor Brunson’s release
Serkan Demirtaş - ANKARA
Turkish citizen Ebru Özkan, who was arrested in Israel on June 11, arrived in Turkey early July 16.
Turkey has denied media reports that a deal was sealed between Turkey and the United States for the release of a Turkish national from an Israeli prison in return for the release of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson amid threats from Washington that it would impose “large sanctions” on Turkey, a NATO ally, over the house arrest of the pastor.
“Media reports claiming that Ebru Özkan was released in Israel in return for the release of Andrew Brunson are completely baseless and unreal. As is known, a conditional release decision was made by the court in Israel on July 9. Ebru Özkan was released by the court pending trial and returned to Turkey,” Hami Aksoy, the spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry, said in a written statement in response to a question on July 27.
Earlier in the day, a senior Turkish official, who asked to remain anonymous, denied the reports too.
“We have seen media reports claiming that a deal was made between Turkey and the United States to secure the release of Ebru Özkan, a Turkish citizen imprisoned in Israel on bogus terrorism charges, in return for the release of Andrew Brunson by a Turkish court,” the Turkish official said. “Those reports are completely baseless. The Turkish government has no intention of meddling in the affairs of the country’s independent judiciary.”
These denials came after the Washington Post reported on July 26 that U.S. President Donald Trump asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a July 14 phone call to let Özkan go to “trade” her for Brunson’s release, a U.S. pastor who has spent 21 months in Turkish detention.
“I can confirm that there was such a request by President Trump,” an Israeli official said on condition of anonymity.
Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was indicted on charges of having links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ), which Ankara blames for the failed coup in 2016. He was transferred to house arrest on July 25 despite strong expectations in Washington for his release and deportation to his homeland.
Trump threatens Turkey
On late July 26, both Trump and his Vice President Mike Pence tweeted threats against Turkey, calling for Brunson’s release “immediately” if Turkey does not want to face “consequences.”
“The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson,” Trump said, while Pence also said “the U.S. will impose significant sanctions on Turkey” if Brunson is not freed.
“To President [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and the Turkish government, I have a message, on behalf of the President of the United States of America. Release Pastor Andrew Brunson NOW or be prepared to face the consequences,” he said.
‘Turkey will never tolerate threats’
Trump and Pence’s tweets were immediately responded to by senior Turkish officials late July 26.
Turkey “will never tolerate threats from anybody,” Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said, adding “No one dictates Turkey. We will never tolerate threats from anybody. Rule of law is for everyone; no exception.”
Presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın, on the other hand, said the “threatening language is unacceptable,” while calling on the U.S. “to adopt a constructive position.”
“Turkey is a fully independent and sovereign country that determines its own destiny. The Brunson case will proceed in its own way, as it should be in a fully independent and sovereign country, and the supreme Turkish justice will have the ultimate say,” Turkey’s Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül said on Twitter.
Çavuşoğlu speaks with Pompeo over phone
Amid intensifying tension between senior Turkish and American officials, Çavuşoğlu held a phone conversation with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo late July 26. No detail was given about the content of the phone talk, although diplomats suggested that the Brunson case was the main topic in the conversation.
Erdoğan preferred not to respond to Trump’s threats late July 26 and on July 27 although he had public appearances in South Africa where he is for a BRICS summit.