A Turkish court ruled on July 25 to move a jailed North Carolina pastor from prison to house arrest, a week after rebuffing defense pleas to do just that during his third courtroom hearing on July 18. The court in the western province of Izmir where Andrew Brunson has been held on flimsy espionage and terror charges since October 2016 said the decision had been made due to “health issues.” Brunson, who has become a lightning rod in US-Turkish relations, is believed to be suffering from depression.
The court said it had revisited its decision to remand him in custody after Brunson’s third courtroom hearing on July 18 in response to a plea from his lawyers. The 50-year-old will be transferred to his house in Izmir where he has lived with his wife, Norine, for more than 20 years, tending to a tiny congregation of Protestants until he was swept up in the mass arrests that followed the failed 2016 coup. Brunson's next hearing was set for Oct. 12.
Pragmatism may have informed the court’s move more heavily than compassion.
It followed a volley of threats from Congress, among them draft legislation proposing that the United States veto funding from international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank should Turkey approach them for relief.
Congress is also pushing to delay the transfer of hundreds of F-35 fighter jets under bills sponsored separately by the Senate and the House because of Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian-made S-400 missiles.
On July 19, President Donald Trump called on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for Brunson’s release in a tweet. Trump called his continued incarceration a “total disgrace” and characterized the pastor as a “hostage” who had done “nothing wrong.”
The Turkish lira and the Istanbul stock exchange rallied on news of Brunson’s move. Most notably the share price of the state-owned lender Halkbank rose sharply. The bank is expected to be slapped with a multi-billion-dollar fine by the US Treasury for its role in helping Iran evade US sanctions. The widely held consensus is that Turkey is holding the pastor and Turkish nationals employed at the US consulates in Istanbul and Adana as “political hostages” to bargain down the fine.
Some financial analysts speculate that the tactic might have worked. Enver Erkan, an analyst for GCM Foreks, told the Sozcu newspaper that markets interpreted the decision to place Brunson under house arrest as a sign that a deal may have been struck between Turkey and the United States over Halkbank. Belgin Mavis of A1 Capital Menkul Degerler concurred. She said, “Markets are pricing in the possibility of an agreement" on Halkbank, Sozcu reported.
Others disagreed, saying US pressure has finally had an effect. Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who closely monitors Turkey, tweeted, “I am hearing that Trump threatened Erdogan, telling him that Congressional action on the F-35 would be the least of his worries if Brunson wasn’t released.”
Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, who also studies Turkey, told Al-Monitor, “I don’t think there is any question that Erdogan was responding to pressure from the United States.” Eissenstat added, “It underlines not only that hardball works, but also that hardball is the only game that Erdogan really plays.”
That conclusion was first drawn when Russia imposed a slew of economic sanctions on Turkey upon the latter’s downing of a Russian fighter jet in November 2015 over the Syrian-Turkish border. Erdogan hastily apologized for the affair and cooperated with Russian-sponsored plans to hand back Aleppo to full regime control.
Similarly, Turkey freed Turkish-German reporter Deniz Yucel, who was being held on trumped-up terror charges in February this year, following German moves to halt funding to Turkey from its export credit arm.
Heissenstat cautioned, however, that whereas Brunson “is the prisoner Washington clearly cares most about, the question of other detained US citizens and foreign service [Turkish] nationals is still on the table.” Congress is demanding they be freed as well.
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