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At least two American citizens are currently sitting in Turkish prisons, where they have been held for the last two years. One is Andrew Brunson, a pastor from North Carolina who ministered to a small Protestant congregation in Turkey for over 20 years until his arrest by the authorities in the fall of 2016. The other is Serkan Golge, a Turkish-American physicist who worked for NASA’s Mars program until the Turkish police picked him up while on vacation in Turkey, also in 2016. Both men stand accused of plotting or partaking in a failed coup attempt that transpired that July against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has ruled the country for 15 years – increasingly with an iron fist.
Turkish prosecutors charged both U.S. citizens with “membership in a terrorist organization.” Golge received a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence in February 2018 for his involvement with the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETO), a group Turkey designated and accused of planning the July 2016 putsch. The term “FETO” was first used in 2015 to refer to the followers of U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan’s closest political ally between 2002 and 2013, who later turned into his sworn enemy following the Gulen network’s role in exposing and publicizing the massive corruption scandal that threatened Erdogan’s government in December 2013. Prosecutors have charged Brunson not only with membership in FETO, but also in a group that is one of Gulen’s archrivals, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist Kurdish insurgency group seeking self-rule in Turkey.
Ankara sees both groups as top national security threats, and has repeatedly branded and jailed dissidents across the political spectrum by accusing them of membership in these organizations. The two Americans are among some 100,000 people detained in Turkey after Erdogan declared a “state of emergency” following the failed coup. Since then, the Turkish president has ruled the country by decree. By the end of the summer of 2016, 150,000 people were dismissed from their jobs. Blatantly targeting Turkey’s secular and liberal opposition alongside the supposed coup-suspects, the dismissals amounted to no less than a mass political purge.
Brunson and Golge were not the only foreign nationals ensnared in these purges. Not only did authorities begin to target Western human rights advocates – an attempt to intimidate Turkish dissidents who collaborate with foreign colleagues – but Turkey’s pro-government media also launched a slander campaign against Europeans and Americans, accusing them of supporting terrorism and conspiring coups to make them into targets for the mass crackdown. With Gulen’s residence in the United States and Washington’s partnership with Syrian Kurds fueling state-propagated anti-Americanism throughout Turkey, Americans came under particular scrutiny.
But other Western nationals experienced similar pressures. More than 30 Western nationals have been jailed in Turkey following the coup attempt, and at least nine remain in prison as of June 1, 2018. Under the state of emergency, they could be legally held up to seven years in pre-trial detention, with limited access to legal or consular support, and are not entitled to attorney-client privilege. Pastor Brunson, for one, has had no due process in his case, with authorities even withholding his indictment for 17 months – based on the testimony of secret witnesses – and keeping him in a maximum-security prison. His lawyer claims he has lost 50 pounds since his arrest.
Increasingly, another aspect of these mass arrests has emerged: Since last summer, American and European officials have on several occasions condemned Turkey’s “hostage diplomacy” – efforts by the Turkish government to make political bargaining chips out of Western prisoners arrested in Turkey since the coup. Following the arbitrary detention of Western nationals in Turkey, they argue, the government uses the prisoners as pawns to extract concessions in bilateral relations with the U.S. and EU countries. As one Freedom House analyst observed, “Turkey’s new foreign policy is hostage-taking.” Indeed, as President Erdogan turned increasingly autocratic at home, Turkey’s international reputation and relations with its traditional transatlantic partners have also frayed.
This hostage diplomacy is not only hurting Turkey’s global standing, but also propelling its transatlantic partners to consider sanctions against Ankara. Germany and the United States have issued several travel warnings to their citizens, advising against visiting Turkey. Business communities and investors across Europe fear Turkey’s repressive climate and lack of fundamental human rights and freedoms. Turkey’s relations with the Netherlands unraveled in March 2017, after a diplomatic row ahead of the Dutch elections. While the main reason for the breakdown was Erdogan’s incitement of Turkish immigrants in the Netherlands, the deportations and detentions of dozens of Dutch citizens in Turkey did not help.
The harshest denunciations of Ankara’s hostage diplomacy, however, have come from the United States Congress, where members have issued multiple calls for imposing sanctions against Turkish officials involved in the wrongful arrests of American citizens. The arrest of Brunson on dubious charges, in particular, has animated Washington, where Congress has held numerous panels and hearings on the pastor’s Kafkaesque case and the conditions of his confinement. Meanwhile, authorities have arrested at least three Turkish employees of U.S. consular missions in Turkey, prompting a visa crisis between the NATO allies in late October 2017. While the crisis was ostensibly resolved by December the same year, all three employees remain in prison or under house arrest.
The United States and various European Union countries have so far dealt with Erdogan’s hostage diplomacy at the bilateral level, using discreet talks with Ankara to plead for the release of their nationals and employees. The Turkish president has chosen to bargain with each country according to his calendar, using his hostages as leverage to gain concessions. The U.S. and the EU need a coherent, transatlantic strategy to counter Erdogan’s hostage diplomacy, not only to ensure the release of Western nationals in prison, but also to prevent other incidents in the future.
Eric Edelman is a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 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 FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.