(CNSNews.com) – A diplomatic dispute between the U.S. and Turkey showed no sign of easing Tuesday, with a court rejecting American pastor Andrew Brunson’s appeal against house arrest and a presidential spokesman in Ankara saying that Turkey is “not without alternatives” should the U.S. withhold the sale of F-35 fighter jets.
President Trump has threatened to impose sanctions against Turkey over its treatment of Brunson, and the fiscal year 2019 defense authorization bill that is nearing passage includes a provision barring the delivery of F-35s pending a report on Turkey’s conduct, including its plans to buy S-400 missile defense systems from Russia.
Brunson, who faces espionage and terrorism-related charges, was moved last week from prison to house arrest, as he awaits his next court hearing on October 12. He had been incarcerated since October 2016.
On Tuesday a court in Izmir province rejected his appeal to be released from house arrest, ruling that the “strong criminal suspicions” against him had not changed, the Anadolu news agency reported.
“Although the suspect has been released from the jail he was imprisoned [in], this does not mean there has been a change in the evidence against him,” the ruling said.
The evangelical pastor from North Carolina ministered in Turkey for more than two decades before he was caught up in a massive crackdown by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government following a failed July 2016 coup.
He is accused of supporting the man Erdogan accuses of responsibility for the coup attempt, the U.S.-based Turkish Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen; of supporting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); and of “dividing and separating the country by means of Christianization” of the Turkish people. Brunson denies all charges. Prosecutors are calling for a 35-year jail term.
There was no immediate administration response to the court’s rejection of his appeal Tuesday, but State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said there was an “ongoing conversation” with the Turks, describing the matter as “sensitive.”
“We would certainly like Pastor Brunson to be sent home now. It’s long overdue,” Nauert said. “He is innocent. We have – continue to have concerns about his longstanding detainment in Turkey.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has spoken to his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu twice by phone in recent days, and the two are expected to meet on the sidelines of Asia-Pacific meetings in Singapore later this week.
Several Turkish employees of the U.S. mission in Turkey are also being held, accused of links to Gulen and the coup bid.
Turkey has bristled at the sanctions threats. A National Security Council meeting chaired by Erdogan on Monday called the U.S. language disrespectful and warned that the U.S. stance on defense industry products could do irreparable damage to the strategic partnership.
On Tuesday, Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, told reporters that on the F-35 or other issues, “Turkey is not without alternatives.”
“The U.S. using threatening language, using an ongoing legal issue as an excuse, is unacceptable,” he said. “Everyone has to respect the ongoing legal procedure on the Pastor Brunson issue.”
Ankara asserts that Turkish courts are independent, but Erdogan himself seemed to suggest otherwise when he hinted last fall that his government could agree to swap Brunson for Gulen, whom he wants extradited.
Trump recently described the pastor as a “hostage,” evidently in reference to Erdogan’s earlier suggestion.
Since the coup attempt, Erdogan has overseen a massive crackdown on dissent, with more than 50,000 arrests and well over 110,000 public sector employees – including judges – losing their jobs.
Western governments have long called into question the independence of the judiciary, an issue seen to have become more pressing with constitutional amendments giving the president power to appoint half of the country’s senior judges.
In its most recent annual human rights report, the State Department listed among the “most significant human rights issues” in Turkey “executive interference with independence of the judiciary, affecting the right to a fair trial and due process.”
Asked Tuesday whether the administration considers Turkey’s courts to be independent, Nauert responded cautiously.
“I’m sure you can imagine we would like to bring our people home and get our people out of jail,” she said. “I will be limited in terms of what I can say about the situation there. It is obviously very delicate.”