Ankara and Washington close to reaching prisoner swap deal - Columnist

Ankara and Washington are about to reach a deal regarding the release of U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson, who is facing a 35-year sentence in Turkey for membership in terrorist organisations, columnist Aslı Aydıntaşbaş wrote in secular Cumhuriyet newspaper on Sunday.

Tensions have soared between two countries this week with the United States imposing sanctions on two Turkish ministers over the ongoing detainment of Brunson.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu met on Friday in Singapore to discuss a possible solution for the release Brunson as well as other U.S. citizens prisoned in Turkey.

According to Aydıntaşbaş, Ankara and Washington are reconsidering a previous formula to release Brunson in exchange for Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an executive for the Turkish state-run HalkBank, who was found guilty in January in United States of involvement in a massive scheme to break U.S. sanctions on Iran.

“Though their legal statuses are different, the return of both men to their countries are steps that can be perceived by the public as ‘political victories’,” Aydıntaşbaş said about the deal. 

However, complications arising from legal procedures may block the deal. Hakan Atilla appealed his conviction on May 25 and the U.S. prosecutors also have a pending cross appeal. Therefore, for Atilla to be released and return to Turkey, both sides have to drop their appeals and the process may take several weeks. 

“Under the circumstances, Brunson may be released first. Ankara expects United States to make at least a binding statement about Hakan Atilla before the release of Brunson,” Aydıntaşbaş said. 

The second part of the deal will include bilateral steps to be taken about the situation of other U.S. citizens jailed in Turkey and the amount of fine Halkbank will receive for its involvement in a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran, Aydıntaşbaş added.

Around 20 U.S. nationals are estimated to have been arrested and charged with terrorism offences in Turkey. United States works on a formula similar to German-Turkish deal reached for the release of German nationals prisoned in Turkey on terrorism charges, including the release of German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel. 

In return, Turkey expects U.S. authorities to levy Halkbank a reasonable fine over its involvement in undermining sanctions placed on Iran by the United States. According to Aydıntaşbaş, U.S. President Donald Trump is ready to take steps to set the fine at a level that will limit the negative affects of the decision on the Turkish banking system. 

Furthermore, Turkey demands from the U.S. administration to prevent additional investigations to be launched against Halkbank, Aydıntaşbaş added. However, as a result of the separation of powers in the United States, the executive branch is not allowed to give instructions to the judiciary about legal proceedings.
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