July 25, 2018 | Policy Brief

Turkish Court Takes a U-Turn, Releases American Pastor to House Arrest

July 25, 2018 | Policy Brief

Turkish Court Takes a U-Turn, Releases American Pastor to House Arrest

In response to an appeal by U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson’s attorney, a Turkish court ruled today that authorities should transfer him from prison to house arrest on health grounds. The same court, during the pastor’s previous hearing a week ago, refused to release Brunson, prolonging his 21-month detention on trumped-up charges of terrorism and espionage. The court’s U-turn followed a strong bipartisan reaction from the U.S., showing how principled pushback can elicit a more favorable response than appeasement of Turkey’s strongman, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Following the court’s July 18 decision to remand Brunson until the next hearing on October 12, numerous U.S. officials issued strong statements condemning the unjust detention of the pastor, including Philip Kosnett, U.S. chargé d’affaires in Turkey; Kristina Arriaga, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF); four senior members of the U.S. Helsinki Commission; and Senators Thom Tillis (R-NC), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), James Lankford (R-OK), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). President Donald Trump, who had earlier received criticism for his praise of Erdogan at the NATO summit, tweeted that it was “a total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected U.S. Pastor,” adding, “he has been held hostage far too long,” and urging Erdogan to “do something to free” Brunson.

There was further pushback from the U.S. Senate, as six senators introduced a bipartisan bill the day after the court’s decision to “restrict loans from international financial institutions to Turkey until the Turkish government ends the unjust detention of U.S. citizens.” Four days later, both houses of Congress took an important step towards banning the delivery of F-35 stealth fighter jets to Turkey.

The prospect of U.S. sanctions has also led to a strong market reaction. The Turkish court’s July 18 ruling to prolong Brunson’s detention “sent the nation’s markets tumbling” as the Turkish lira lost value, yields on government bonds rose, and stocks slumped.

Brunson’s release to house arrest is a positive step not only for the pastor, whose health is deteriorating, but also for Turkey. The Turkish lira and stocks rose in the immediate aftermath of the court’s ruling; however, analysts do not expect “a fundamental improvement in bilateral relations.” USCIRF Vice Chair Arriaga issued a statement warning that the pastor’s transfer home “is welcome news … but not enough” and reiterated earlier calls for the Trump administration and Congress to “respond strongly and swiftly with targeted sanctions against the authorities responsible.”

Ankara needs more than today’s U-turn to quell the storm brewing in Washington. Brunson is one of more than 50 Western nationals, residents, and employees arrested on dubious charges as part of Erdogan’s “hostage diplomacy” following the 2016 abortive coup. Two Turkish nationals employed by the U.S. missions in Turkey are currently in pre-trial detention, while a third one is under house arrest. Serkan Golge, a Turkish-American NASA scientist, is currently serving a seven-and-a-half-year sentence on dubious terrorism charges. Unless Erdogan puts an end to his hostage diplomacy, relations between the U.S. and Turkey will continue to deteriorate.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 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.