Turkey was unprepared in mid-May when a new bilateral issue emerged with the United States during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s meeting with his US counterpart Donald Trump in Washington DC, Al-Monitor reports.
There were already two obvious agenda items between the two presidents: Turkey’s outspoken objection to Washington’s decision to supply heavy weapons to a Syrian Kurdish group that Ankara considers a terrorist organisation, and Turkey’s demand for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric Erdoğan accuses of masterminding last year’s coup attempt.
But, unexpectedly, Trump made a counter-demand on 16 May, asking Erdoğan to release US pastor Andrew Brunson, jailed since last October on alleged terrorism charges in Izmir, Turkey’s third city. After living in Turkey with his family for 23 years, the Protestant pastor has been under arrest for more than six months now. Neither he nor his lawyer have been allowed access to his case file, and prosecutors have yet to draw up an indictment detailing the charges against him.
“Because the case is restricted,” Brunson’s lawyer Aysun Aksehirlioglu told CNNTURK, “I have not been able to see the file. There is a secret witness statement. We don’t know if there are any details beyond that, and if so, what their essence is.”
The sole evidence against Brunson is allegedly the testimony of this secret witness, who claims the pastor frequently visited Gaziantep, along the Syrian border, and provided aid to the illegal Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). A Turkish Protestant spokesman confirmed Brunson’s visits there, but explained Brunson had gone to provide food, clothes and other supplies for the Syrian refugees. “All churches in Turkey did the same,” the source told Al-Monitor.
But later media reports said the secret witness had accused the pastor of links with Gülenist circles, which the Turkish government now calls the Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organisation (FETO).
CNNTURK reported on 17 May that although Brunson’s arrest was based on the secret witness claim that the pastor had FETO links, it had specifically emerged that he was suspected over his “missionary activities”.
Local Turkish Protestant sources say Brunson’s case is completely political, rather than criminal, revealing that even Turkey’s small Protestant community has been caught up in the massive post-coup dragnet, which has jailed thousands of public servants, academics, journalists and members of civil society groups since last July. Since Brunson’s arrest, the work and residence permits of several other Protestant foreigners have been cancelled, resulting in their deportation or blocked re-entry as “national security risks”.
After a rash of news reports on Trump’s appeal for Brunson’s release appeared in the Turkish media, the Protestant community is apprehensive that Ankara could try to use the pastor as a bargaining chip in its floundering campaign to secure Gülen’s extradition from the United States.
Although Brunson is now allowed regular visits with his wife, lawyer and US consular officials, visitors say he is suffering psychologically, depressed over being unjustly imprisoned. Reportedly the justice ministries of both countries are tasked to resolve his disputed case.