U.S. patience is wearing thin over Turkey’s nearly two-year-long imprisonment of an American priest.
The proceedings “were dominated by wild conspiracies, tortured logic, and secret witnesses, but no real evidence to speak of,” said Sandra Jolley, vice chair of the U.S. federal Commission on International Religious Freedom, who attended the hearing outside of Izmir and recommended “targeted sanctions” on Turkey after it concluded. “From the people at the very highest level of the American government to the very bottom, people are outraged that you can just snatch somebody up and there is no recourse.”
U.S. sanctions against Turkey would be a remarkable turn for a relationship that’s been one of the bedrocks of the post-World War II U.S. security stance in the Middle East. And even if the Brunson trial doesn’t bring them, Turkey faces the possibility of getting them for other issues: its participation in a massive scheme to evade Iranian sanctions, which resulted in the conviction of an executive at state-run Turkiye Halk Bankasi AS; and its purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia, which U.S. government lawyers have decided will trigger automatic sanctions the moment they hit Turkish soil.
Of the three possible tracks for U.S. sanctions, “pastor Brunson’s case is of course more imminent,” said Sinan Ulger, a former Turkish diplomat who’s now a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. “The case of the pastor is going to weigh heavily on the tonality of this relationship.”
While Turkish assets are underperforming, with the lira dropping 10 percent so far this year and the stock exchange down 25 percent, the market isn’t pricing in the possibility of sanctions impacting the economy in any major way, according to Paul McNamara, who oversees about $11 billion in developing-world assets at GAM UK Ltd. That’ll change if the U.S. takes action against the financial system following sentencing next month of Mehmet Hakan Atilla, the former Halkbank deputy CEO.
“Turkey is vulnerable right now, and the market will react badly to any bad news,” McNamara said. “I think a Halkbank sanction is the one that matters. The market doesn’t care about the other two.”
Defending himself in fluent Turkish, Brunson called the allegations against him “disgusting” and pleaded for a return to his family. Such appeals have also been made to Erdogan directly and repeatedly at the highest levels of the U.S. government — including by President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — to no avail.
Even though Turkish officials say the Brunson case is a judicial rather than political matter, Erdogan seemed to confirm U.S. suspicions that the Turkish government was holding him as leverage for political purposes last September, when he suggested that Turkey could release Brunson if the U.S. agreed to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Islamic preacher Turkey says was the mastermind of the coup attempt. “Give a pastor, take a pastor,” Erdogan said.
Brunson’s first hearing took place on April 16, after a year and a half in prison. Prosecutors have asked for him to be sentenced to 35 years.
“I want to go back home,” Brunson said at his trial on Monday. He and his wife burst into tears as the court adjourned the case and called a new hearing for July 18, three weeks after Turkey holds elections.