Responding over the weekend to public pressure from both US President Donald Trump and 66 members of the US Senate, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan repeated his demand that US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen must be extradited back to Turkey if Washington expects Ankara to release jailed US pastor Andrew Brunson.
Speaking in a live interview on the Turkish NTV news channel on 21 April, the Turkish president claimed “the US is behind [Gülen],” the Muslim imam he accuses of masterminding a deadly coup attempt in July 2016 to overthrow his elected government.
“If you want Brunson, look at the steps you have taken in the past,” Erdoğan was quoted as saying in a Sputnik News report. “Why don’t you deport this man [Gülen] in accordance with the extradition treaty?”
Erdoğan had announced in January that he would no longer facilitate US extradition requests until Washington sent Gülen back to Turkey.
The United States has denied repeated requests for Gülen’s extradition, citing a lack of sufficient judicial evidence of his involvement in the failed coup. “If you are not giving him to us, then excuse us,” Erdoğan said, “but from now on, whenever you ask for another terrorist, as long as I am I office, you will not get them.”
Swept up in a massive crackdown against suspects of the government-labelled FETO (Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organisation), Brunson has been behind bars for 18 months, ever since he was detained on 7 October 2016 and initially told he was a “national security risk” to be deported within 15 days. The 50-year-old Evangelical Presbyterian pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church had ministered in Turkey for 23 years.
US pushes for pastor’s release
After the first hearing against Brunson on 16 April, Trump tweeted that the pastor was “being persecuted in Turkey for no reason”. The Izmir 2nd Criminal Court had ruled at the close of the 12-hour hearing to keep Brunson in prison until the second hearing set for 7 May.
Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason. They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 18, 2018
By the end of last week, two-thirds of the US Senate had signed a bi-partisan letter to President Erdoğan, urging that “justice would be done and Pastor Brunson would be reunited with his family”.
“We are deeply disturbed that the Turkish government has gone beyond legitimate action against the [FETO] coup plotters to undermine Turkey’s own rule of law and democratic traditions,” the letter said.
The 66 senators described the indictment read out in court against Brunson as “an absurd collection of anonymous accusations, flights of fantasy and random character assassination. It is an insult not only to an unjustly imprisoned individual, but to the traditions of Turkish jurisprudence”.
“That a Turkish court could accept such a document as the basis for prosecution removes any shred of doubt that Andrew Brunson … is being used as a political pawn by elements of the Turkish government bent on destroying the longstanding partnership between two great nations,” they concluded.
“The suggestion in the indictment that the actions of Pastor Brunson to explain his religious convictions to others was somehow meant to undermine the Turkish state brings a new and deeply disturbing dimension to the case,” the senators stressed. “It should trouble all Turks justly proud of Turkey’s centuries-old tradition of welcoming believers of all faiths.”
Washington’s religious-freedom concerns had been voiced clearly on the afternoon of Brunson’s trial, when a Turkish reporter asked the US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom observing the hearing if he considered this a political case. “Actually, the charges seem to be about his faith,” Ambassador Sam Brownback responded. “In the past Turkey has been very open on this subject. But the accusations are factually inaccurate and false. This is a religious-freedom case,” he said.
Ambassador Brownback talks to the press after Pastor Andrew Brunson’s hearing in Izmir, Turkey. We remain deeply concerned about the continued arbitrary detention of U.S. citizens and local employees of the U.S. Mission in Turkey. pic.twitter.com/yK2oq8O6vt
— Ambassador Sam Brownback (@IRF_Ambassador) April 16, 2018
Brunson’s Turkish defence lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt agrees. “There is evidence that shows Brunson was arrested due to his faith,” Halavurt told Reuters the night before the trial began, noting that his client’s religious role had been “classified as aiding terror organisations”.
Two senators announced on 19 April that they will pursue targeted sanctions against Turkey related to “holding Brunson and other innocent American citizens behind bars on fabricated charges… [T]he actions against Pastor Brunson, in particular, qualify as hostage-taking,” the statement from Senators James Lankford and Jeanne Shaheen said.
The next day, the pro-government Daily Sabah stated: “Turkish officials … strongly refuse the allegations that Brunson was taken hostage. They say Brunson’s connections and interactions with multiple parties meet the legal criteria for a court case.”