US evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson was moved to house arrest after spending over a year and a half in a Turkish prison on terror and espionage-related charges.
Vice President Mike Pence warned Ankara that if steps were not taken immediately to ensure Brunson’s release, “the United States of America will impose severe economic sanctions on Turkey.”
Speaking at a conference on religious freedom, Pence said the pastor was “an innocent man” and that there was “no credible evidence against him.”
Pence earlier spoke to Brunson by telephone, promising that the “entire” administration would “keep working to secure his full release.”
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that while the US welcomed the “long overdue news” that Brunson had been moved to house arrest, this was “not enough.” Pompeo urged Turkish authorities to “resolve his case immediately in a transparent and fair manner.”
Brunson, 50, had lived and worked in Turkey for over 23 years and was arrested in October 2016 in the aftermath of the July 2016 coup attempt against President Erdogan.
The pastor was accused of being affiliated with the Gulen movement, an organization led by Pennsylvania-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkish authorities believe masterminded the coup attempt.
The charges against him were later amended to include espionage and attempting to overthrow the Turkish government. He has also been accused of working for the PKK, a Turkish-Kurdish militant group, which Ankara classifies as a terrorist organization. Brunson has denied all the charges.
Brunson’s family has urged US authorities to take action to free the pastor. If convicted, he faces up to 35 years in prison. Turkish media reported that Brunson had been moved from prison to house arrest for “health reasons.”
President Trump recently tweeted on a Turkish court’s refusal to free the pastor last week, calling the move “a total disgrace” and urging President Erdogan to “do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father.”
Ankara had earlier proposed swapping Brunson for Gulen. The Obama and Trump administrations have rejected all Turkish efforts to extradite the Islamic preacher back to his home country.