Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan today issued an emergency decree giving himself the authority to trade foreign citizens held in Turkish prisons for individuals incarcerated abroad. This unusual decree follows Turkish prosecutors’ filing of additional charges against American pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been imprisoned for the last ten months on trumped up charges of “membership in an armed terrorist organization.” The likely purpose of Erdogan’s recent moves is to pressure the United States into trading Brunson for Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish dual national awaiting trial in New York for his role in money laundering and bank fraud as part of an effort to evade sanctions on Iran.
Brunson, a Protestant who has lived and preached in Turkey over twenty years without incident, has become a victim of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) campaign of scapegoating Christians in the aftermath of the abortive coup in July 2016. The authorities, who deported or denied entry to other U.S. Christians, first detained and then arrested Brunson. Under Turkey’s state of emergency, the pastor had no access to legal counsel or consular officials for the first two months, and authorities continue to deny him attorney-client privilege. Now, Brunson also faces charges of espionage and attempting to overthrow the Turkish government. If convicted, the pastor can face four consecutive life sentences.
Meanwhile, media subservient to Erdogan have been printing ludicrous accusations against the pastor and smear him regularly. The Takvim daily, owned by an AKP crony who partnered with Russia’s Rosatom to build Turkey’s first nuclear plant, claimed that the pastor was the mastermind of Turkey’s failed coup and would have become the CIA director had he succeeded in overthrowing the government.
The U.S. government has raised the case of Brunson repeatedly with Ankara. During Erdogan’s Washington visit in May, President Donald Trump brought up the issue three times. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with the pastor’s wife in Ankara during his Turkey visit in March. Tillerson also singled out Turkey’s violation of religious freedoms at the launch of the State Department’s annual report on international religious freedom. Leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees also sent a letter to Erdogan seeking the unconditional release of Brunson.
The Turkish government, however, has responded by doubling down on the pastor. Following yesterday’s additional charges, Turkish authorities transferred Brunson to a maximum security prison to serve his pretrial detention alongside coup plotters. Pro-Erdogan media celebrated the new charges against the pastor.
Brunson’s treatment is part of the Turkish government’s “hostage diplomacy” of using Western nationals as bargaining chips. German media have reported on Erdogan’s proposal to swap an imprisoned German journalist in exchange for Turkish generals seeking asylum in Germany. There are also reports of Erdogan’s lobbyists trying to broker a deal in Washington to exchange Brunson with Iranian-Turkish sanctions-buster Reza Zarrab awaiting trial in New York.
The Turkish president’s strategy of holding foreign nationals hostage for leverage is borrowed directly from Tehran and Pyongyang’s playbooks. It is a dangerous trend that will further align Turkey’s foreign policy with the likes of Iran and North Korea’s.
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.