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US slaps sanctions on Turkey officials over detained pastor

Erdogan and Trump at the Palace Hotel in New York City [Getty]

Date of publication: 1 August, 2018

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The detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson has soured relations between NATO allies Washington and Ankara.

The US slapped sanctions on two Turkish government ministers on Wednesday, in retaliation for Ankara's detention of an American pastor being held on terror charges.

"We believe he's a victim of unfair and unjust attention by the government of Turkey," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told journalists, referring to Andrew Brunson, an American pastor at the centre of a bitter diplomatic spat between NATO allies Washington and Ankara.

Brunson, who led a Protestant church in the Aegean city of Izmir, was placed under house arrest last week after nearly two years in jail.

"Pastor Brunson's unjust detention and continued prosecution by Turkish officials is simply unacceptable," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. 

Just after the sanctions announcement, the administration announced that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would meet his Turkish counterpart concerning Brunson.

Ankara on Wednesday threatened to retaliate to the sanctions, warning the actions could damage ties.

"There is no doubt that this will greatly damage constructive efforts working to solve the issues between the two countries," the foreign ministry said in a statement. "Without delay, there will be a response to this aggressive attitude.

The sanctions - which Trump had threatened last week - target Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu.

The Trump administration said the two ministers oversaw the arrest and detention of Brunson and accused them of leading "Turkey's serious human rights abuses".

Trump had discussed the matter with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan multiple times, Sanders said. 

Erdogan has insisted that sanction threats would not force Ankara to take a "step back".

Brunson was initially detained in October 2016 during Turkey's crackdown following the July 2016 failed coup attempt. He is accused of carrying out activities on behalf of two outlawed groups: the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the movement supporting US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen.

He faces upwards of 35 years in jail if convicted.

The evangelical pastor, who is originally from Black Mountain, North Carolina, has lived in Turkey for 23 years and led Izmir Resurrection Church.

Erdogan previously connected Brunson's return to the US to the extradition of Fethullah Gulen. Ankara blames Gulen for the coup attempt, while the cleric denies involvement.

After sanctions were announced on Wednesday, the Turkish lira slumped to record lows of 5.0 against the dollar. 

Agencies contributed to this report.

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