A Turkish prosecutor has demanded life imprisonment for a jailed US pastor, Turkish media reported on Tuesday, further complicating efforts to mend the troubled ties between Washington and Ankara.
Andrew Brunson, a Protestant preacher who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was arrested in October 2016 and accused of having ties to Fethullah Gulen, the US-based cleric blamed by Turkey for a failed coup three months earlier that left 248 people dead.
On Tuesday, prosecutors presented an indictment that charged Mr Brunson with membership of and management of Mr Gulen’s movement, according to the Dogan news agency. The charges, which were accepted by a court in the coastal city of Izmir, carry a life sentence.
The charges come amid intensive efforts between US and Turkish officials to find solutions to the tension in their relationship. Ties between the two Nato members have plummeted to their lowest point in decades due to disagreements over Syria, the fallout from the 2016 coup attempt, the jailing of US citizens and consular staff in Turkey, and Ankara’s plans to purchase a Russian air defence system.
The launch of a Turkish military operation in the north-western Syrian enclave of Afrin has caused particular friction, pitting its forces against the US-backed Kurdish YPG militia.
A life sentence for Mr Brunson is likely to complicate efforts to find a resolution. “I think this is going to have a major impact on the conversation in Washington, right at the moment when it seems both sides are making progress on foreign policy differences,” said Nicholas Danforth, senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “This very much has the potential to undermine that progress.”
US President Donald Trump has personally asked his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to facilitate Mr Brunson’s release, but the pastor has remained in jail for almost 18 months.
Mr Erdogan has suggested that he wants to organize a prisoner swap, handing over the American in exchange for the extradition of Mr Gulen, who lives in a mountain retreat in Pennsylvania. “You have one pastor as well,” Mr Erdogan said last year. “Give him [Gulen] to us. Then we will try him [Brunson] and give him to you.”
The case has added to growing frustration with Turkey on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress have been considering the prospect of imposing sanctions on Ankara. Two members of US consular staff, both of them Turkish citizens, are also behind bars.
Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, had been due to meet the US secretary of state Rex Tillerson in Washington next week to work towards a solution on some of the most pressing areas of conflict.
Mr Cavusoglu said on Tuesday that the two countries had agreed to jointly oversee the withdrawal of the Kurdish YPG militia from the Syrian city of Manbij, near the Turkish border.
The departure of the militia from the town is a key demand from Ankara, and Mr Cavusoglu said that the details would be thrashed out next week in Washington. But, hours after that statement, the sudden sacking of Mr Tillerson by Mr Trump added a further complication.