President Tayyip Erdogan suggested on Thursday that Turkey could free a detained US pastor if the United States hands over a Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania whom Ankara blames for a failed military coup last year.
Turkey has been seeking the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan whose supporters are blamed for trying to overthrow Erdogan’s government in July 2016. Gulen has denied any role in the coup attempt, in which 250 people were killed.
Thousands of people have been detained in a crackdown since the failed coup, including American Christian missionary Andrew Brunson, who ran a small church in Izmir on Turkey’s western coast.
Brunson has been held since October. Turkish media say the charges against him include membership of Gulen’s network, considered a terrorist organisation by the Turkish government. The United States says Brunson has been wrongfully imprisoned and has called for him to be released.
In a speech to police officers at the presidential palace in Ankara, Erdogan appeared to link the fate of the two men.
“‘Give us the pastor back’, they say. You have one pastor as well. Give him (Gulen) to us,” Erdogan said. “Then we will try him (Brunson) and give him to you.”
“The (pastor) we have is on trial. Yours is not – he is living in Pennsylvania. You can give him easily. You can give him right away.”
A decree issued in August gave Erdogan authority to approve the exchange of foreigners detained or convicted in Turkey with people held in other countries “in situations required by national security or national interests”.