President Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speak to reporters at the White House on Tuesday, May 16, 2017. (Screen Grab from White House footage)
(CNSNews.com) – A former U.S. ambassador to Turkey is urging the Trump administration not to consider swapping a Turkish businessman facing Iran sanctions-busting charges in the U.S. with an American pastor incarcerated in Turkey for nine months. The pastor is accused of having links to “terrorists.”
While exchanging Turkish-Iranian financier Reza Zarrab for Protestant pastor Andrew Brunson may hold appeal for the administration, Eric Edelman wrote in a Washington Post column, “a trade would be a grave mistake.”
“[T]rading a peaceful faith leader imprisoned on spurious charges in exchange for a sleazy middleman accused of corrupting a foreign government on behalf of Iran would only help [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan suborn the rule of law in the United States as he has done in Turkey.”
Edelman, a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), wrote the column with Merve Tahiroglu, an FDD research associate. They said rumors of a potential prisoner swap were “swirling in Washington.”
The Iranian-born Zarrab, 34, is a wealthy and well-connected businessman, arrested in Florida in March last year and charged with conspiring to carry out hundreds of millions of dollars in financial transactions to help Iran evade U.S. sanctions.
Turkey’s Islamist government has been pressuring Washington to send him home, amid speculation his trial may prove politically damaging to Erdogan.
“Erdogan is likely the only one with the power and authority to order to evade the Iranian sanctions and he knows very well that Zarrab is going to testify against him unless Turkey itself finds a way to save him from prison,” Ahmet Yayla, a former Turkish police counterterrorism official and professor at George Mason University, wrote in a column in Modern Diplomacy shortly Erdogan visited Washington in May.
In 2013, Zarrab was embroiled in a scandal in Turkey, accused of heading a multi-billion dollar money laundering, gold smuggling and bribery network designed to bypass Iran sanctions by shipping gold to Tehran in return for Iranian oil and gas.
Members of Erdogan’s ruling AK Party were also implicated in the affair. Erdogan, who was then prime minister, accused the investigating prosecutors of plotting against the government and removed them from their posts. Erdogan became president the following year, and four months later the corruption charges were dropped and Zarrab was freed, in what Edelman and Tahiroglu charge was “blatant political intervention in the judicial system.”
The politically-sensitive U.S. case against Zarrab took a new turn in March, when another Turk, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, was arrested at John F. Kennedy Airport.
Atilla, 47, a former chief executive of the Turkish institution Halkbank, is accused of helping Zarrab carry out his alleged violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran. Their trial is due to begin in late October in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
Speaking alongside Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Ankara in March, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey viewed the arrests of both Zarrab and Atilla as “political.”
American pastor Andrew Brunson has been imprisoned in Turkey since last October. (Photo: ACLJ)
Meanwhile, last October, Turkish authorities arrested Brunson, a Protestant pastor from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades.
Despite being an evangelical Christian, he was accused of being a member of the movement headed by U.S.-based Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, which Ankara calls a terrorist organization.
Erdogan accuses the 76-year-old Gulen, a former ally whom he now reviles, of orchestrating a failed coup attempt a year ago, and wants him extradited. A post-coup crackdown on alleged supporters of Gulen and other government critics has seen some 50,000 arrests and a purge of 150,000 judges, soldiers, teachers and others.
Brunson’s Turkish lawyer has stated that his client “has had no relationship or communication with this [Gulen’s] organization.”
American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ) chief counsel Jay Sekulow has taken up Brunson’s case with the White House, and says he’s been told President Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence brought up the imprisoned pastor three times during meetings with Erdogan when he visited Washington in May.
A White House readout of Trump’s May 16 meeting with the Turkish leader said that he “raised the incarceration of Pastor Andrew Brunson and asked that the Turkish government expeditiously return him to the United States.”
According to the ACLJ, Pence has also written to the pastor’s wife, Norine, assuring her that “Andrew’s case remains a top priority of the U.S. government.”
An ACLJ petition calling for Brunson’s release has garnered more than 310,400 signatures.
“Trump should intensify the diplomatic effort to secure the release of Brunson – but not by negotiating a prisoner swap for Tehran’s bag man in Turkey,” Edelman and Tahiroglu wrote.
“Erdogan’s efforts to undermine the U.S. legal system shouldn’t be rewarded,” they said. “For Turks who are trying to protect what’s left of their country’s democracy, it’s the least that Washington can do.”