Senate ties fate of Rev. Brunson to jet sales to Turkey

Mark Barrett
Asheville Citizen Times

Lawmakers in Raleigh and Washington continue to push Turkey to release Pastor Andrew Brunson, a Christian missionary from Black Mountain imprisoned on charges supporters say are false and politically motivated.

The U.S. Senate on June 18 passed a defense policy bill that would delay the planned sale of more than 100 F-35 fighter jets to Turkey and calls for the Defense Department to come up with a plan to end Turkish participation in making the jets.

Turkey received its first F-35 on June 21. The rest of the sale hinges on the outcome of the Senate bill that also references Turkey’s planned purchase of an anti-aircraft missile system from Russia and Brunson’s continued imprisonment. It still needs approval from the U.S. House and President Donald Trump to become law.

The N.C. House passed a resolution two weeks ago urging Brunson’s release.

Brunson has been behind bars in Turkey since October 2016 and was later charged with espionage and helping terrorist groups.

He had been a missionary in Turkey for more than 20 years.

His 62-page indictment is nonsensical at times, at one point accusing Brunson of association with terrorists because his daughter sent him a photo of a Middle Eastern food dish the Turkish government says is a favorite of terrorists. Much of it is based on accusations from anonymous sources.

His trial began in April, recessed until May and will resume July 18.

The language affecting jet sales is part of a bill that sets U.S. defense policy on a broad range of issues.

It says Brunson has been “unlawfully and wrongfully” detained and denied due process.

“Congress will not tolerate any foreign government’s efforts to use United States citizens for political leverage,” the bill says.

Sens. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.; Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; and James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, have pushed to tie Brunson’s fate to the jet sale.

Backers of steps against Turkey have also raised concerns that its planned purchase of anti-aircraft missiles from Russia would violate U.S. sanctions against Russia and cause problems if Turkey uses them while fighting alongside its NATO allies.

The Senate bill says no F-35s could be sold to Turkey until the Defense Department develops a plan to remove Turkey from participation in the jet’s production and cease sales to Turkey. Some parts for the jet are made in Turkey.

It is not yet clear what impact the Senate’s action will have on the number of jets Turkey gets.

The U.S. House version of the defense policy bill says no jet sales can be made until the Defense Department reports to Congress on the state of U.S.-Turkey relations. It sets a 60-day deadline for the report.