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.
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 Erdoğan, 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 Aliağa, 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
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 Turkey, as saying he saw nothing to indicate Brunson had committed any crime.
In April, US President Donald Trump tweeted in support of Brunson, saying he was “being persecuted in Turkey for no reason”.
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
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, the Al-Monitor news website noted that Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan 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 phone call 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 Erdoğan’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. 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 Erdoğan, 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 Aliağa 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 11 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 Aliağa, 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.
Andrew Brunson timeline
|1993 – present||US Protestant pastor Andrew Brunson involved in legally recognised church-related Christian ministry in Turkey.|
|Deadly military coup attempt against Turkish government fails; Ankara blames network of US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen for coup, seeks Gulen’s extradition from US.|
|20 July||Turkish President declares state of emergency (still in force), suspending certain judicial practices; 110,000 public officials dismissed, 35,000 Gulen suspects under arrest, awaiting trial.|
|7 October||Brunson detained with wife Norine, in Alsancak police station, Izmir; told he would be deported within 15 days as “threat to national security”.|
|19 October||Norine Brunson released from police detention.|
|20 October||Andrew Brunson moved to Harmandali Detention Centre (outskirts of Izmir), placed in solitary confinement.|
|9 December||Summoned (with lawyer) to closed hearing at Izmir 2nd Criminal Court.
Charges changed to “membership in an [unnamed] armed terrorist organisation”. Placed under formal arrest in overcrowded group cell at Aliaga Sakran Prison (45 miles from Izmir).
|20 December||US Senator James Lankford meets Turkish Justice Ministry officials in Ankara, the capital.|
|29 December||Izmir court rejects lawyer’s appeal to release Brunson.|
|Unnamed senior Turkish official to Wall Street Journal says claim that Brunson’s arrest related to his religious affiliation is "ludicrous".|
|15 February||78 US Congress members write to Turkish President Erdogan, urging him to release Brunson.|
|9 March||Turkish Prime Minister Yildirim tells USA Today it's a “nonsensical” idea that Brunson held hostage until Turkish cleric Gulen’s extradition from US; says pastor’s case could be "accelerated".|
|28 March||Brunson sends appeal letter to US President Trump.|
|30 March||US Secretary of State Tillerson meets Norine Brunson in Ankara.|
|15 May||American Center for Law & Justice files petition to UN Human Rights Council for Brunson’s release.|
|16 May||Trump asks Erdogan in person during Washington DC visit to release Brunson.|
|Late May-June||Flurry of Turkish media allegations against Brunson link him with Gulen movement, armed PKK separatists, CIA, "missionary" activities.|
|30 May||Erdogan promises "retaliation" vs. countries holding Gulen movement suspects.|
|7 July||Washington Post reports Turkey’s swap offer to exchange Brunson for release of millionaire Turkish-Iranian prisoner Reza Zarrab, facing trial in New York for evading US-led Iran sanctions.|
|17 July||Brunson moved to shared cell in Kiriklar Maximum Security Prison in Izmir’s Buca district.|
|24 July||New charges of “espionage & insurgency” against Brunson reported in Turkish press.|
|24 August||Izmir judge initiates video conference call with Brunson and his lawyer; pastor informed his official criminal charges are “spying and insurgency”.|
|25 August||New "state of emergency" Executive Order No. 694 authorises Erdogan to arrange to swap Turkish citizen prisoners for foreigners jailed in Turkey.|
|28 September||Erdogan publicly declares swap offer of Brunson for Gulen’s extradition.|
|5 October||Two representatives of US Commission for International Religious Freedom visit Brunson at Kiriklar Prison.|
|15 November||Brunson’s daughter Jacqueline addresses US Helsinki Commission hearing, Washington DC.|
|Brunson’s 50th birthday.|
|11 January||Erdogan vows no extraditions to US until Gulen returned from US to Turkey.|
|23 January||US delegation visiting Ankara raises Brunson’s "wrongful detention".|
|9 March||Jacqueline Brunson addresses UN Human Rights Commission, Geneva.|
|13 March||Written indictment against Brunson leaked to Turkish press.|
|16 March||Indictment accepted by Izmir 2nd Criminal Court; first trial date set for 17 April.|
|26 March||Brunson’s North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis visits him at Kiriklar Prison.|
|17 April||First trial hearing: Brunson denies all charges, three prosecution witnesses testify; observed by US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback and Senator Thom Tillis.|
|7 May||Second trial hearing: includes 11 hours of testimony, one from a secret witness who, identity concealed, appeared on video in the court. USCIRF's vice-Chair Sandra Jolley attends.|
|18 July||Court rules Andrew Brunson must remain in prison, dashing hopes of his imminent release.|
|25 July||Court orders Andrew Brunson to be moved from prison to house arrest.|
|14 August||Lawyer appeals arrest & travel ban to Izmir 2nd Court.|
|17 August||Izmir 3rd Court rejects lawyer's appeal.|
|6 September||Head prosecutor removed from the case|
|12 October||Released from custody and allowed to leave country. Court convicts Brunson and sentences him to 3 years, 1 month and 15 days, but releases him because of good behavior and for time already served in detention.|