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The U.S. must stand up to Erdogan and his politically motivated detentions

Washington PostSenator Roger Wicker

Last fall, Americans rejoiced as the pastor Andrew Brunson, a North Carolina native, returned home after spending more than two years in Turkish prisons on baseless terrorism and espionage charges.

A combination of congressional pressure and targeted sanctions on Turkish officials sent a clear message to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the United States would not tolerate his using Brunson as a pawn to extract political concessions. Faced with mounting political and economic costs, Erdogan caved.

Sadly, the pastor’s release did not put an end to Erdogan’s hostage-taking. Today, the Turkish government continues to hold at least one American citizen and two Turkish employees of the U.S. government on false charges. Erdogan plans to inflict misery on these innocent people until he gets what he wants out of the United States — whether that is a green light to attack Kurdish strongholds in northern Syria, taking legal action against Fethullah Gulen and his followers in the United States, or U.S. acquiescence to Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air defense system. Such attempts at extortion are all the more galling coming from Turkey, an important NATO ally that is not acting like one.

American citizen and NASA physicist Serkan Golge is serving a five-year prison sentence for alleged involvement in terrorism, despite no credible evidence of wrongdoing. Turkish police have also used false terrorism charges to detain three longtime Turkish employees of U.S. consulates in the country: Hamza Ulucay, Metin Topuz, and Mete Canturk.

Golge and Topuz are in solitary confinement, where they have spent up to two-and-a-half years with only an hour of fresh air per week. Ulucay was released earlier this year after being held for nearly two years. Canturk remains under house arrest, and his family is subject to travel bans and regular police check-ins.

These men are all innocent. Not only have they lost irreplaceable time with their families, but the physical and psychological toll of their ordeal also means they may never be the same once they regain their liberty.

The United States did not tolerate the politically motivated detention and mistreatment of a U.S. citizen in the case of Pastor Brunson. We should not tolerate those acts now with Golge or longtime U.S. government employees.

As the United States increased pressure on Turkey over Brunson, it simultaneously tried to cut a deal with Erdogan for the freedom of the other detainees. By now, it is abundantly clear that no amount of coaxing will secure their freedom. Any negotiation over their fate would only reward Erdogan’s bad behavior. As with Brunson, only stiff political and economic pressure will work.

This week, I introduced the bipartisan Defending United States Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecutions Act of 2019, which would require the president to impose sanctions on all senior Turkish officials responsible for these wrongful detentions, including barring them from travel to the United States and freezing any assets they have here. The bill further calls on President Trump to urge Turkey to restore due-process guarantees and respect for the fundamental freedoms of all its people, thousands of whom are victims of the same sort of politically motivated prosecution and indefinite detention endured by our citizens and consulate personnel.

The United States has a particular moral obligation to protect our own citizens. Golge’s wrongful imprisonment at the hands of the Turkish government cannot stand.

We also have moral obligations to our local staff overseas. Thousands of citizens of other countries work at U.S. government facilities around the globe, lending their diverse expertise to critical U.S. missions, often at great risk to themselves and their families.

The credibility of the United States is at stake in the eyes of these courageous individuals who place their trust and safety in our hands. The fate of their colleagues in Turkey weighs heavily on the minds of our consular staff, as it does on our national conscience. No effort should be spared until they are free.

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