Hopes dashed for release of pastor Andrew Brunson as Turkish trial to continue in October

Hopes were dashed for the imminent release of an American pastor jailed in Turkey on terrorism charges as a Turkish court today ordered him to remain behind bars.

The court scheduled Andrew Brunson’s next hearing for 12 October.

Pastor Andrew Brunson, pictured in January 2018. Photo courtesy of World Witness

Some observers had believed that Turkey might release Brunson, who has been detained for almost two years, since Oct 2016. The pastor of a small church in Izmir, he is accused of having links with supporters of the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is blamed for the failed 2016 coup against President Erdogan, and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Brunson denies all the charges.

According to Reuters, Brunson told the court in Turkish “It is really hard to stay in jail and be separated from my wife and children.”

“There is no concrete evidence against me,” Reuters quoted Brunson as saying. “The disciples of Jesus suffered in his name, now it is my turn. I am an innocent man on all these charges. I reject them. I know why I am here. I am here to suffer in Jesus’s name.”

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Vice Chair Kristina Arriaga attended today’s hearing in Aliaga, near Izmir. USCIRF has condemned the charges against Pastor Brunson and has called for his immediate release.

“The government of Turkey continues to make a mockery of justice in its treatment of Pastor Brunson. Today I was hoping to see the judge order his complete release and put an end to the miscarriage of justice that Pastor Brunson’s entire case represents. Turkish authorities still have not provided one good reason for depriving Pastor Brunson of his liberties. The Trump Administration and the Congress should continue to apply pressure, including using targeted sanctions against officials connected to this case, until Pastor Brunson is released.”

Kristina Arriaga, Vice-Chair, US Commission on International Religious Freedom

From left, Kristina Arriaga, vice-chair, US Commission on International Religious Freedom, and Philip Kosnett, chargé d’affaires, US Embassy in Ankara, at the July 18 hearing in Aliaga, Turkey.

The court heard testimony from four witnesses: three for the prosecution, and one for the defence. For nearly two hours during today’s hearing, former church members testified against Pastor Brunson, making vague, unsubstantiated accusations. When the judge asked Brunson to reply to the witnesses, he said: “My faith teaches me to forgive, so I forgive those who testified against me.”

Brunson’s lawyer’s request for his first choice defence witness was refused, since the witness himself was also implicated in the indictment, so another witness, less familiar with Brunson, had to appear instead.

Brunson’s supporters were disappointed at today’s outcome, having been encouraged by recent talks at the diplomatic level.

Reuters cited Philip Kosnett, the US charge d’affaires for Tukrey, as saying he saw nothing to indicate Brunson had violted any crime.

In April, US President Donald Trump tweeted in support of Brunson, saying he was “being persecuted in Turkey for no reason”.

In June the US Senate passed a measure that forbids the sale of American-made F-15 Joint Strike fighter jets to Turkey, partly because of Brunson’s detention.

Still, this week the Al-Monitor news website noted this week that Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Erdogan were “all smiles as they were photographed exchanging fist bumps” at last week’s NATO summit in Brussels. That meeting was followed by a 15-minute phonecall on Monday (16 July), during which Brunson’s case was discussed, according to the Turkish pro-government daily newspaper, Sabah.

A former opposition member of the Turkish parliament told Al-Monitor that powerful forces are working against Brunson. Aykan Erdemir, now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Al-Monitor: “Both the pro-government media and the prosecutor’s office have dug themselves deep in framing Brunson as a terrorist, and it will be a challenge for them to pull a U-turn.”

He added that Erdogan’s nationalist allies “have a proven track record of anti-Christian and anti-missionary prejudice and would not welcome Brunson’s release.”

In late June, two US senators, Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, met President Erdoğan in Ankara after visiting Pastor Brunson in prison in Aliağa, Izmir. The pair called for the US to enact sanctions against Turkey over Brunson’s detention. According to Al-Monitor, the senators had “not minced their words” in their meeting with Erdogan, and believed he may not have been “properly briefed” about the seriousness of the sanctions, but he “now understood”.

After Brunson’s previous hearing, in Aliaga in May, Sandra Jolley, Vice Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, released a scathing appraisal of the way the proceedings were carried out. After attending the 11-hour session, during which the judge dismissed all of Brunson’s witnesses, she said in a statement:

“We leave the courthouse with serious concerns. Today’s eleven hours of proceedings were dominated by wild conspiracies, tortured logic, and secret witnesses, but no real evidence to speak of. Upon these rests a man’s life.

“Worse still, the judge’s decision at the conclusion of today’s hearing to dismiss all of the witnesses called by Pastor Brunson’s defense without listening to a single minute of their testimony is simply unconscionable.”

The pastor and his Turkish lawyer finally learned the specific allegations on which his charges of alleged espionage and terrorism are based, most of them from “secret witnesses”, only a month or so before his first court hearing. The prosecution has demanded 35 years in prison if Brunson is convicted of these charges, all of which he denied in a six-hour defence before Izmir’s Second Criminal Court at his hearing on 16 April.

Bill Campbell, Pastor of Hendersonville (N.C.) Presbyterian Church, attended the hearing in Aliaga, Turkey.

“As usual, there was much spurious testimony against Andrew,” Campbell said via encrypted text message following adjournment of the proceedings. “Andrew’s testimony was absolutely powerful. He presented the gospel with confidence and defended himself with boldness. The court allowed for the first time a favourable witness, and one who was to speak against him actually spoke in Andrew’s favour. It felt like they had decided the outcome before the trial.”

The Christian agency Middle East Concern reported that “Observers at the court hearings have commented on the fantastical nature of the claims.”

According to Brunson’s lawyer, Ismail Cem Halavurt, he should have been granted conditional release as the investigation is now complete. The head judge, however, continued to refuse to acquit Andrew or grant him conditional release”.

This is allegedly due to the serious nature of ‘terrorism’ charges and the fact that he’s an American citizen. Brunson’s imprisonment continues to be a key factor in US-Turkey relations.

 

Source: World Watch Monitor