In an unprecedented move against a NATO ally, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions yesterday against two Turkish cabinet ministers for their human rights abuses, especially the detention and arrest of North Carolina Pastor Andrew Brunson. Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gul and Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu head the two ministries responsible for holding Brunson hostage for the last 21 months and prosecuting him on fantastical charges. The sanctions represent the culmination of the worst crisis between Washington and Ankara in decades.
The designation of Gul and Soylu follows a year-long effort by the United States to call out Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his “hostage diplomacy,” which entails the imprisonment of Western nationals to use as bargaining chips to extract diplomatic concessions. Several American citizens, including Pastor Brunson and NASA scientist Serkan Golge, were jailed in Turkey amidst a frenzy of arrests and upsurge of anti-Americanism following the failed coup attempt in July 2016. Turkish authorities have accused Brunson, Golge, and the others of membership in a terrorist organization and coup plotting, in addition to espionage. Golge has already begun serving a seven-and-a-half-year sentence, whereas some of the other Americans are not allowed to leave the country.
Last week, after President Donald Trump tweeted angry messages at Ankara calling the imprisonment of Pastor Brunson “a total disgrace,” a Turkish court transferred Brunson from prison to house arrest. Unimpressed, both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence pledged to impose sanctions unless Ankara set the pastor free and allowed him to return home. Their action follows repeated calls for sanctions over the past year from members of Congress.
Previously, the U.S. has taken only short-lived punitive measures against Erdogan’s hostage diplomacy. In response to Ankara’s detention of three local employees of the U.S. mission to Turkey, Washington imposed a visa ban on Turkish citizens last October. The State Department rescinded the ban in December, citing Ankara’s assurances that local employees would endure no further harassment.
The U.S. Treasury designated Gul and Soylu under Executive Order 13818, which builds upon the December 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. Per the designation, any property they own within U.S. jurisdiction will be blocked, and they will be prohibited from transacting with Americans. More consequentially, the designations – which mark the first Global Magnitsky sanctions by the U.S. against a NATO ally – are also sure to rattle Turkey’s faltering economy, further eroding investor confidence, intensifying the devaluation of the lira and exacerbating capital flight.
The U.S. should stand firm in its demand for the unconditional release of U.S. citizens and employees held on spurious charges. Ankara’s arbitrary detention of U.S. persons may be the straw that broke the camel’s back, yet Erdogan’s government has persistently antagonized the U.S. with its complicity in Iran’s efforts to evade U.S. sanctions and its increasingly close ties to Moscow. The Turkish strongman may never restore the rule of law for his own citizens, but as Wednesday’s designations indicate, his relentless incarceration campaign will continue to invite forceful responses from Washington.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate. Follow them on Twitter @aykan_erdemir and @MerveTahiroglu.
Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and follow FDD’s Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance @FDD_CSIF. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.