ISTANBUL — Ankara’s reluctance to release foreign citizens swept up in its post-coup purge has drawn accusations that they are being used as bargaining chips to pressure Turkey’s NATO allies into extraditing Turks living abroad. German politicians have gone as far as to call them “hostages.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appeared to confirm their fears when he suggested he would be willing to swap an American missionary detained in Turkey for the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Ankara accuses of orchestrating last year’s coup attempt.
“‘Give us the pastor back,’ they say. You have one pastor [Gülen] as well. Give him to us,” Erdoğan said in a speech on September 28 at the presidential palace. “Then we will try [the American] and give him to you.”
Erdoğan was referring to Andrew Brunson, who ran a small Protestant church in the coastal city of İzmir. He was detained in October last year on grounds of being a “threat to national security.” According to Turkish press reports, he has been charged with links to Gülen’s movement, which Ankara classifies as a terror group.
Accusing a Christian missionary of belonging to an Islamic movement may seem peculiar, but virtually anyone can be labeled a Gülenist, as state prosecutors consider even the most tenuous connection — such as a single conversation with another suspected member — as evidence of membership.
Besides membership of a terror organization, Brunson has been charged with trying to overthrow the Turkish government, the parliament and the constitutional order. The pastor, who has lived in Turkey for 20 years, denies all allegations.
“The [pastor] we have is on trial,” Erdoğan said in his speech. “Yours is not — he is living in Pennsylvania. You can give him easily. You can give him right away.”
Turkey requested Gülen’s extradition shortly after the failed coup, but U.S. officials describe the evidence provided by Erdoğan’s government so far as insufficient. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert indicated last week that there had been no progress.
As for Erdoğan’s suggestion of swapping Gülen for Brunson, Nauert told reporters: “I can’t imagine that we would go down that road.” The pastor, she said, had been “wrongfully imprisoned in Turkey.”
A journalist for two generals
The Republican senator for Oklahoma, James Lankford, said the idea that the U.S. “should make a hostage-style prisoner swap for an innocent American imprisoned in Turkey is appalling.” Yet Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for Brunson, told the Wall Street Journal in August that American and Turkish officials had discussed a potential prisoner exchange.
Erdoğan has the power to authorize such a swap: A state of emergency decree issued in August gave the president the final word over the extradition or exchange of foreign nationals detained in Turkey.
Several U.S. citizens are thought to be detained in Turkey, though only two — Brunson and Turkish-American NASA scientist Serkan Gölge — have been named.
Besides Gülen, Ankara also wants the U.S. to return Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman with ties to Turkey’s ruling elite, who was arrested in Miami last year for helping Iran evade sanctions.
“It strikes me that there’s no real good reason for the pastor and the NASA scientist to be in jail in Turkey. So they do look as if they are being held as bargaining chips,” said Steven A. Cook, a fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.
“Is it fair to call them hostages? Some people may call them hostages. I prefer to say they appear to look like bargaining chips,” he added. “The Germans have been very forward in their allegations that this is hostage-taking. It certainly has the appearance of it, unfortunately.”
German politicians have indeed been blunter than their American colleagues. Asked this summer why the German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel was still sitting behind bars, Germany’s outgoing foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, did not mince his words: “Because Turkey, in my opinion, holds him captive as a hostage,” he told Buzzfeed’s German edition.
Germany’s Bild newspaper reported that in June, Erdoğan offered to release Yücel — on the condition that Berlin extradite two Turkish generals who had applied for asylum in Germany.
Hundreds of Turkish citizens, among them military officers and diplomatic staff, applied for asylum in Germany after the failed coup, as Erdoğan’s government began detaining tens of thousands of suspected Gülenists. Nearly 200 Turks with diplomatic passports have already been granted asylum, enraging Ankara.
Responding to Bild, Gabriel said there had been “no official exchange offer.” Yet as Der Spiegel noted, Erdoğan was said to have suggested the swap during a private conversation with Gabriel, rather than in an official statement or diplomatic note.
Yücel is one of 12 Germans imprisoned in Turkey for “political reasons.” Another journalist, Mesale Tolu, was detained in April and has since been held in an Istanbul women’s prison along with her two-year-old son.
Both Tolu and Yücel have been accused of “terror propaganda” on behalf of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group that has been fighting the Turkish state for decades. State prosecutors have used similar charges to imprison Kurdish journalists and MPs.
“If Turkey was a state with rule of law, Mesale would never have been arrested,” her father, Ali Reza Tolu, told Der Spiegel last month. “She is not guilty of anything. Erdoğan has taken her hostage.”
‘The new Turkey’
Following the arrest of German human rights consultant Peter Steudtner in July, such accusations have grown louder. A spokesman for Germany’s foreign office assured reporters the government was doing everything it could to prevent detained German citizens from “becoming hostages of the Turkish government.” A Turkish prosecutor on Sunday called for Steudtner — alongside close to a dozen other detainees including Swedish activist Ali Gharavi — to serve a 15-year jail sentence on charges of belonging to a terror organization.
Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz told Bild that German citizens in Turkey “run the risk of becoming hostages of President Erdoğan’s politics.” Green party co-leader Cem Özdemir, who is of ethnic Turkish origin and is touted as a potential foreign minister in Germany’s new government, has repeatedly referred to detained Germans as Erdoğan’s “hostages.”
Berlin has revised its travel advice for Turkey in recent months, warning its citizens that consular access to detained Germans could not be guaranteed. German diplomats were only given permission to visit Yücel and Tolu after two months. (Tolu, unlike Yücel, is not a dual national.)
Ankara has rejected accusations that Turkey is unsafe for Germans. Regarding the use of foreign detainees as bargaining chips, the government has stayed silent. Presidential officials contacted for this article either did not respond or were unavailable for comment.
Yet Erdoğan has hinted at potential prisoner swaps before. In August, he told members of his party: “There is a known charlatan in Pennsylvania. His backup team are in Europe, especially Germany, and hang around there. You are feeding these terrorists and then you get up and say, ‘give us so-and-so.’