- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Trump administration slapped economic sanctions on two senior Turkish officials Wednesday, escalating a clash over an American pastor being held by Ankara on what U.S. officials say are trumped-up terrorism charges.

The Treasury Department targeted Turkish Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu in the sanctions, marking the first time Washington has levied such penalties against a fellow NATO ally.

American Christian pastor Andrew Brunson, a North Carolina native who has lived and worked in Turkey for two decades, has been held in a Turkish jail for the past 18 months on charges relating to ties with U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. He is also accused of playing a role in the failed 2016 military coup to overthrow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Ankara says Mr. Gulen was responsible for coordinating the coup attempt and considers the PKK a terrorist organization.

Mr. Brunson’s detention has become a cause celebre for American evangelical Christians, a key element in President Trump’s political base. It also has become a major irritant in a relationship already facing disagreements over Syria, Russia and Iran.

“We’ve seen no evidence that pastor Brunson has done anything wrong,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters while announcing the sanctions.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said numerous calls between President Trump and Mr. Erdogan and his own calls with Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in recent days failed to ease the impasse.

“These sanctions are the appropriate action,” Mr. Pompeo said.

On Twitter, Mr. Cavusoglu hit back, calling the U.S. sanctions an effort to enforce its position on Mr. Brunson’s detention and vowing that Ankara would respond in kind.

“The United States will not be unrequited [for] sanctions on our two ministers,” he wrote. “We cannot solve our problems unless the U.S. administration realizes it cannot obtain illegal claims by this method.”

As the politicians traded charges, Turkish and U.S. military officials tried to keep at least a portion of the relationship intact.

Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, head of U.S. European Command, arrived in Turkish city of Izmir on Wednesday for bilateral talks with Gen. Yasar Guler, the Turkish chief of general staff. The western Turkish city is the headquarters for NATO’s land component and happens to be where Mr. Brunson has been detained.

Local media outlets reported that Gen. Scaparrotti would meet with Mr. Brunson, but U.S. and Turkish officials have dismissed the claim. The general’s visit is geared toward discussing “a variety of defense matters, while highlighting the strong U.S. and Turkey [military-to-military] relationship,” European Command officials said ahead of the visit.

The Erdogan government ordered the release of Mr. Brunson, 50, and placed him under house arrest in Izmir last week. But a Turkish court this week denied his most recent appeal for a full release.

Officials from the Turkish Embassy did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday, but Mr. Erdogan made clear that Ankara would not bend to pressure from Washington. “Approaching us with threatening remarks will not earn anyone anything,” he told reporters in Turkey.

The sanctions, carried out under the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016, are modeled on those levied against Russian officials in recent months over Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The law allows U.S. government agencies to target individuals or other organizations accused of corrupt acts or human rights violations.

The U.S. sanctions mean that any property or investments belonging to Mr. Gul or Mr. Soylu within U.S. jurisdiction would be blocked. Americans would generally be prohibited from doing business with them.

Mr. Gul shrugged off the decision, tweeting that he had no assets outside Turkey and that his only dream was of owning “a small olive grove” in his Turkish hometown.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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