(CNSNews.com) – Turkey’s Islamist government vowed late Wednesday to respond to the imposition of U.S. sanctions against two of its government ministers over the treatment of an American pastor, and one of the targeted ministers shrugged off the move, saying he had no financial interests in the United States.
The imposition of U.S. Treasury sanctions against the justice and interior ministers “will not go unanswered,” tweeted Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. “We cannot resolve our problems unless the US administration realizes that it cannot achieve its unlawful demands through this method.”
His said in a statement that Ankara “will respond” to Washington’s “aggressive attitude,” and urged the U.S. administration to reverse the “wrong decision.”
The U.S. Treasury Department said the ministers, Abdulhamit Gül and Süleyman Soylu, were being designated for heading entities that have “engaged in, or whose members have engaged in, serious human rights abuse.”
Specifically, they “played leading roles in the organizations responsible for the arrest and detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson.”
Any property or interests the two may have within U.S. jurisdiction is blocked, and “U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.”
Gül, the justice minister, responded dismissively, saying on Twitter he does not have “a single penny” in the United States.
Although most of Turkey’s cabinet members are independents, Gül and Soylu are both members of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The foreign ministry did not specify the targets of its promised retaliation, but the nearest equivalent U.S. cabinet members would be Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
The Trump administration turned up the pressure on the NATO ally after months of direct appeals to Turkey’s leaders failed to secure the release and return home of Brunson, an evangelical pastor accused of espionage and terror-related offenses.
After 21 months behind bars he was moved to house arrest last week. An Izmir court on Tuesday rejected his appeal against house arrest and a court-ordered travel ban.
Prosecutors are seeking a 35-year prison term for the 50-year-old North Carolina native, whose trial is scheduled to continue in October.
They accuse him of supporting two organizations outlawed in Turkey – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and a movement led by U.S.-based Turkish Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan accuses of masterminding a failed coup attempt in mid-2016.
Brunson, who lived in Turkey for more than two decades and pastored a small evangelical church in Izmir, has denied all charges, and the U.S. administration also declares him to be innocent.
“We’ve seen no evidence that Pastor Brunson has done anything wrong and we believe he is a victim of unfair and unjust detention by the government of Turkey,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday.
“Pastor Brunson’s unjust detention and continued prosecution by Turkish officials is simply unacceptable,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement announcing the designations. “President Trump has made it abundantly clear that the United States expects Turkey to release him immediately.”
The designations have been made under an executive order issued by the president last December pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Act, a 2016 law that provides for punitive measures against human rights abusers and corrupt actors globally. Initial targets were 13 officials in 12 countries, including Russia, China, Pakistan and Burma.
Erdogan told reporters earlier Wednesday that the threatening language from Washington would benefit no-one.
Cavusoglu, the foreign minister, is currently in Singapore for meetings with Southeast Asian counterparts. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due to arrive there on Friday, and the Turkish foreign ministry said earlier this week the two are expected to meet.
Turkey also has in custody three Turkish employees at U.S. diplomatic missions in the country, also accused of links to Gulen’s movement or the PKK.
Hamza Ulucay, a translator at the U.S. Consulate in the southern city of Adana, has been detained since February 2017; Metin Topuz, an employee at the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, was detained in October 2017; and Nazmi Mete Canturk, also attached to the consulate in Istanbul, has reportedly been under house arrest since last January.
On Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert disputed reports saying the department has not been advocating for the release of the Turkish staff members,
“We’ve had lots of engagements with our – with Turkish counterparts about getting our locally employed staff out of prison as well,” she said.
Serkan Golge, a Turkish-American physicist at NASA, was arrested while visiting Turkey in mid-2016. Last February he was convicted of being a member of Gulen’s movement.
The U.S. Embassy in Ankara said at the time he was convicted “without credible evidence,” and Nauert said the case “raises serious concerns about respect for judicial independence, protections enshrined in the Turkish constitution, including an individual’s right to a fair trial.”