Turkey’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal refused to commit to the release of detained US pastor Andrew Brunson during talks with officials in Washington on Wednesday following last week’s escalation with Ankara.
Instead, the delegation raised concerns about a state-run lender, Halkbank, that’s under investigation for its role in a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran and faces the prospect of a large fine by the U.S. Treasury, according to the official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The lira sank about 3 per cent on Thursday to a new record.
The Turkish delegation included eight members from the finance, justice and foreign ministries who met State Department and Treasury officials in Washington. No deal was reached.
The State Department said that Deputy Secretary John Sullivan held a 45-minute meeting with Mr Onal and “discussed a range of bilateral matters, including Pastor Brunson”.
The visiting delegation then went to the Treasury for further discussions, according to a person familiar with the plans who asked not to be identified because the meeting wasn’t formally announced. They were expected to arrive back in Turkey on Thursday, according to Turkish officials.
Mr Brunson has been detained in Turkey’s Izmir since October 2016, and efforts to secure his release hit a roadblock last month, prompting President Donald Trump’s government to take measures against Turkey. These included sanctions on Turkish Interior and Justice Ministers Suleyman Soylu and Abdulhamit Gul.
Negotiations to release Mr Brunson resumed last week, but there was no agreement reached following Wednesday’s meeting.
Quoting State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, Turkey’s Daily Sabah reported that the discussions “would continue”.
On Tuesday, Ms Nauert said: “If we had reached any type of agreement, I think you’d see Pastor Brunson back here at home, along with the other American citizens.
“The kind of progress that we want is for Pastor Brunson, our locally employed staff, and other American citizens to be brought home. That’s the real progress that we’re looking for, and obviously we’re not there just yet.”
Mr Brunson was detained by Turkey in October 2016, six months after he made a visa renewal application. He has lived in Turkey for a quarter of a century.
In December of that year, he was charged with membership of an armed terrorist organisation. A court record at the time suggested the charges linked him to Fethullah Gulen and his supporters, the organisation the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames for a coup attempt in Turkey in the summer of 2016.
Aaron Stein, a scholar who focuses on Turkey at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East, told The National: “Turkish officials have a clear pathway to de-escalate this situation. It entails taking yes for an answer on the proposed arrangement on offer as late as July 17.”
The US had reportedly been Mr Brunson’s release on July 18, the day of his appearance in court, but instead the ruling kept him in jail till his next hearing in October. A week later he was moved to house arrest.
“Ankara is flummoxed and doesn’t really know what to do. They have a yes from the Americans if they want to take it,” Mr Stein said referencing the reported arrangement between the two.
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According to the Washington Post, Mr Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed on a deal that would release Mr Brunson and, in exchange, Turkish national Ebru Ozkhan would be released by Israel. Ms Ozkhan was released on July 16.
Turkish outlets reported that Mr Erdogan is seeking the release of Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a Turkish banker serving a 32 months sentence in New York for evading Iran sanctions.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not meet with the Turkish delegation but held a phone with his counterpart in Ankara, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, on Monday. Also, US Defence Secretary James Mattis spoke with his counterpart Hulusi Akar and discussed defence relations, Syria and counter-terrorism.
US Congress moved late last month to block further F-35 deliveries to Turkey until it cancels the S-400 defence system deal with Russia and Brunson is released.
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