Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has for the first time explicitly admitted he is using an American pastor jailed in Turkey as a bargaining chip to force the U.S. government to extradite one of his main political foes, the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.
“The U.S. wants a pastor from us. You have a pastor of your own; you give him to us, then we return pastor to you,” Erdogan told a group of police officers at the presidential palace in Ankara on Thursday.
The American pastor he was talking about is Andrew Brunson.
Brunson, a North Carolina native who operated a small Christian church in the coastal city of Izmir, has been in prison since October.
Brunson faces terrorism charges, though the Turkish government has not said what terrorism he may have committed. Brunson has been accused in Turkish media of being a follower of Gulen, a so-called Gulenist. One pro-government news outlet recently accused Brunson of being a CIA operative.
In Turkey, the so-called Fethullah Terrorist Organization, or FETO, is considered a terrorist group.
Brunson has also been accused of providing material support to the PKK, a radical Kurdish separatist group considered a terrorist organization in Turkey and the U.S. The basis for that allegation is that Brunson, who has lived and preached in Turkey for 23 years, allegedly allowed Kurds to speak at his church.
Brunson’s wife, Noreen, who was in jail with him for nearly two weeks after his arrest, has vehemently denied the terrorism allegations.
Erdogan has been obsessed in recent months with forcing Gulen’s extradition. The Islamist leader claims that Gulen was behind a failed coup attempt against the Turkish government last July.
Gulen, who has lived in self-exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, denies ordering the attack, which was carried out by a small group of military officers and left more than 250 people dead. According to reports, there is evidence that Gulen supporters directed the attack, though there has been no evidence released to the public showing that Gulen ordered it.
In response to the failed coup, Erdogan has led a nationwide crackdown on Gulen’s followers. Tens of thousands have been forced out of their government jobs. News outlets that are seen as sympathetic to Gulen have been forced to shut down and had their journalists arrested.
Erdogan, a former ally of Gulen’s, has also pressed both Presidents Obama and Trump on the Gulen extradition issue. Erdogan suggested during his speech on Thursday that he brought up the prisoner swap — Brunson for Gulen — with American officials during his trip to the U.S. last week.
Erdogan was in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly. He met for roughly 45 minutes with President Trump, who called his counterpart a “very good friend.”
The extradition processes in the U.S. and Turkey are quite different, especially following Turkey’s recent decision to grant Erdogan unilateral authority to make swap deals to extradite foreigners. In the U.S., the federal court system, and not the White House, decides extradition cases.
The difference appears to be lost on Erdogan, who has used the fail coup attempt to increase his executive powers.
“The [pastor] we have is on trial. Yours is not — he is living in Pennsylvania. You can give him easily. You can give him right away,” Erdogan said during his speech on Thursday, according to Reuters.
Trump has reportedly raised the issue of Brunson’s imprisonment with Erdogan. Sec. of State Rex Tillerson has also pressed the Turkish government to release the pastor. Tillerson met with Noreen Brunson during a trip to Turkey earlier this year.