ANKARA (Reuters) - President Tayyip Erdogan suggested on Thursday that Turkey could free a detained U.S. pastor if the United States handed over a Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania whom Ankara has blamed for a failed military coup last year, an idea that Washington appeared to dismiss.
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. U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said the Turkish government has yet to provide enough evidence for the U.S. Justice Department to act.
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 has said the charges against him include membership of Gulen’s network, considered a terrorist organisation by the Turkish government. The United States has said that 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”.
Asked about Erdogan’s suggestion of a swap of Gulen for Brunson, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “I can’t imagine that we would go down that road.”
“We have received extradition requests for him (Gulen),” she told a daily State Department briefing. “I have nothing new for you on that. We continue to call for Pastor Brunson’s release.”
She said U.S. diplomats were able to visit Brunson on September 18, and added, “We continue to advocate for his release. He was wrongfully imprisoned in Turkey, and we’d like to see him brought home.”
Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun and Daren Butler, additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by David Dolan and Gareth Jones