The U.S. Shouldn’t Tolerate Turkey’s Hostage-Taking

July 31, 2018 | Henri Barkey and Eric Edelman
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On Wednesday, giving in only partially to pressure from the Trump administration, the Turkish government transferred the American pastor Andrew Brunson—held for two years on fictitious charges of terrorism—from prison to house arrest. Brunson fell victim to the mass detentions in the wake of the abortive coup two years ago. But he is not the only prisoner Washington should concern itself with, argue Henri Barkey and Eric Edelman: three Turkish nationals employed by the U.S. State Department have also been detained:

[Such] “foreign-service nationals” . . . form the backbone of U.S. diplomatic efforts abroad. No American embassy or consulate could operate without them. The three men have been detained in Turkey on bogus charges. Two are in jail, and one is under house arrest. As with tens of thousands of others imprisoned by the Turkish authorities in recent years, the charges against them are the product of paranoid conspiracy theories that beggar the imagination. . . .

The unwillingness of Washington to apply public pressure on Turkey to release these State Department employees sends an alarming message to the other local staff in Turkey: they are all subject to intimidation and pressure from Turkish authorities, and their employer doesn’t have their back. In effect, Turkish intelligence now has leverage over part of U.S. operations, shattering diplomatic conventions. Many of these local employees have resigned. Worse, the Turks’ actions may be copied by other authoritarian states that notice the U.S. government’s indifference.

It is quite possible that Erdogan will release Brunson [since] Turkey may soon need help from the United States, a NATO ally, if its ailing economy slides into a meltdown. Brunson’s release would be welcome, but it would also present a danger that the U.S. government would consider the matter of unjustified detentions resolved—condemning [the foreign-service employees] to years in Turkish jails.

Congress has an opportunity to play an important role here. A new U.S. ambassador to Turkey is likely to be nominated soon. The Senate should use the confirmation process to hold the administration accountable for the safety and security of all State Department employees. . . . A U.S. failure to show that it stands by its people will cripple the State Department’s ability to represent America overseas. Either foreign-service nationals are on the U.S. team, or they are not.

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