Why Pastor Brunson's release may be on the horizon

As Turkey suffers stubbornly high inflation and its lira steadily falls against the dollar, the last thing it needs is U.S. President Donald Trump to carry out his threat to impose sanctions over the imprisonment of American pastor Andrew Brunson.

Despite the protestations from Turkish ministers that the country’s judiciary is independent, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has a track record of doing deals with foreign powers when pressure is applied.

Brunson, an evangelical pastor living in Turkey for more than 20 years, was arrested in October 2016 as part of a widespread crackdown in the wake of a failed coup in July that year and accused of supporting both the conservative Islamist group believed to be behind the failed putsch, and left-wing armed Kurdish militants.

“The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being,” Trump wrote in a tweet. “He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!“

Erdoğan has so far stood up to the U.S. pressure, telling reporters, “you cannot force Turkey to cave to sanctions”. If the United States does not change this attitude, he said, “they should not forget they will lose a sincere and strong partner”. Turkey had other alternatives, Erdoğan said during a trip to Africa in which he unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the BRICS bloc of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa to allow his country to join the group and rename it BRICST.

But when Turkey has come under sustained political and economic pressure, Erdoğan has a history of compromise.

Germany, Turkey’s biggest trading partner, stopped weapon sales and issued travel warnings after the arrest of its citizens, Die Welt correspondent Deniz Yücel and human rights activist Peter Steudtner in the wake of the 2016 coup. But when faced with the prospect of losing export credits and a project to update Turkey's German-made Leopard tanks, Erdoğan changed course and freed Yücel without a trial.

"The funny thing is, I still don't know why I was arrested one year ago, or more precisely, why I was taken hostage one year ago – and I also don't know why I was freed today," Yücel said after his release. Steudtner was also freed the same way.

The release of Steudtner and Yücel prove the judiciary in Turkey is not as independent as Turkish government officials would have us believe.

Erdoğan’s suggestion that Brunson could be freed in exchange for the extradition from the United States of chief coup suspect Fethullah Gülen backs up this point.

While U.S. officials have insisted the judiciary in their country is indeed impartial and independent, the Washington Post reported that Trump and Erdoğan had made a deal to trade a Turkish citizen imprisoned on terrorism charges in Israel for Brunson’s release. 

But after Israel freed the Turkish woman and she had arrived back in Turkey, the Washington Post said Erdoğan reneged on his side of the deal and instead of freeing Brunson, the courts last week transferred him from prison to house arrest. It was that, the newspaper said, that led Trump a day later to angrily threaten sanctions.

In Ankara, political insiders say the government is playing the "Mavi Marmara" game with Brunson. In 2010, Israeli forces killed 10 Turkish Islamist activists on the Mavi Marmara, a ship attempting to break the blockade on Gaza.

Erdoğan demanded Israel apologise, pay compensation to the families of the deceased, and try the soldiers involved. But soon after, media reports said Foreign Ministry officials had struck an agreement with Israel that waived almost all of these demands.

U.S. President Barack Obama later brokered a telephone call between Israelli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Erdoğan. Netanyahu apologised on the call, according to reports, rather than issuing the formal apology the Turkish president demanded. Soon after the "independent Turkish judiciary" dropped the case against the Israel soldiers and the government pressured the families to waive their claims for compensation. The Israeli government later sent $20 million to the families through a charity foundation, not as official compensation, and the Mavi Marmara file was no more.

Turkish presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın is already trying to soften tension with the United States, calling on Washington "to adopt a constructive position".

Russia imposed sanctions on Turkey and stopped its citizens travelling to its beaches for their holidays after Turkish warplanes brought down a Russian fighter jet over the Syrian border in 2015. Just eight months later, Erdoğan sent a letter of apology to Putin, signed a $22-billion deal for Russian firms to build a nuclear plant in Turkey and a $4-billion deal to buy Russian air defence missiles.

I for one would not be surprised to see Brunson acquitted and on a plane to the United States very soon.