The Washington Post has reported that the Trump administration understood a deal was in place for the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson. All sources within the Trump administration were quoted anonymously. The reports indicate that in exchange for the release of Brunson, Trump would assist in the release of Ebru Ozkan, a Turkish national arrested in Israel in June for alleged ties to Hamas.
On July 15, Israel deported Ozkan, after a personal call from Trump to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, says the article. Ozkan had been accused of smuggling as part of Hamas money laundering.
Turkish officials have denied any such agreement tying Ozhan’s case to that of Brunson. Multiple media outlets in Turkey state the actual deal involved Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a Turkish banker with close ties to the Erdogan government. Atilla was convicted earlier this year of bank fraud in a scheme to help Iran evade U.S. sanctions. In May, he was given a 32 month sentence.
Murat Yekin, reporting in the Hürriyet Daily News, argues this scenario is unlikely as neither the Atilla nor Ozkan cases equate to the charges again Brunson. He writes, “The level of importance attached to the Brunson case by both Trump and Erdoğan is high; much higher than the bargaining chips alleged by both American and Turkish media.”
The implication is the continued linking of the Brunson case to Turkey’s demands for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen who they accuse of masterminding the 2016 attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The U.S. has thus far resisted the calls for extradition on grounds that sufficient evidence against Gülen has yet to be presented by the Turkish government. Gülen, founder of the worldwide Hizmet or Service movement, currently resides in exile in Pennsylvania.
Yekin quotes Erdogan, “The change of attitude [since the fist-bump in Brussels] is Trump’s problem. We don’t find it right that those [remarks] which were not spoken were presented as if they were. A request had been made through our Foreign Minister for the release of Ebru Özkan. Ebru had actually been released by [Israeli authorities] before but her passport was not given back. We told the Americans they could help her return by making [the Israelis] return her passport. We did not say, ‘We will give them Brunson in return.’ There was no such bargain. Netanyahu’s statement was ‘Trump made a call and we released her.'”
The Washington Post, citing a Trump adviser, noted Turkey had “upped the ante” with additional requirements before releasing Brunson. Regardless of the claims, evidence suggests any such deal has unraveled in the wake of threatened sanctions against Turkey by both President Trump and Vice President Pence.