World Watch Monitor
Andrew and Norine Brunson in their Alsancak home in Izmir, Turkey, on 12 October, 2018, moments before they were escorted to the airport by US Embassy officials to fly back to the United States. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

Andrew Brunson, the American-born pastor who was charged with espionage against Turkey and held in custody for two years, has been released and is free to leave the country.

A Turkish court on Friday, 12 October, convicted the Presbyterian pastor on terrorism and espionage charges related to the failed 2016 coup against Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The court sentenced Brunson to more than three years of prison time, but released him on account of time already served in detention and good behaviour.

Facing up to 35 years in prison if convicted, Brunson flatly denied all charges. After being held in a number of different detention facilities since his arrest in October 2016, Brunson, 50, was assigned to house arrest in July of this year.

Turkey’s major English-language news service, Hurriyet, reported that during Friday’s court hearing, important prosecution witnesses recanted some of their testimony against Brunson, weakening the government’s case against him. The hearing, held in a prison complex in Izmir, lasted nearly six hours. The court’s ruling at 4.28pm ended Brunson’s ordeal.

After the presiding judge read the verdict aloud in court, and asked Brunson if he had a response, the pastor said, in Turkish: “I am an innocent man. I love Jesus, and I love Turkey.”

He was whisked away from the court and returned to his home in Izmir, on Turkey’s western coast with the Agean Sea. At about 9pm local time he and his wife, Norine, departed for the airport, accompanied by American Embassy officials, for a flight to the United States.

Debi Forester, communications director of Brunson’s hometown church in the US state of North Carolina, said church members were “all just shouting ‘Hallelujah!’ and doing the happy dance” on the news of his release, according to the Associated Press.

Rev. Richard White of Christ Community Church has been with the Brunson family in Turkey for the past couple of days, AP reported. The church plans a celebration some time after his return.

The prosecution of Brunson was a sore spot between Ankara and Washington, triggering US sanctions and tariffs against Turkey and heated exchanges between Erdoğan and US President Donald Trump.

The president immediately celebrated Brunson’s release via Twitter.

From beginning to end: All of World Watch Monitor’s coverage of Andrew Brunson: Click here

The Washington Post reported 12 October that Brunson’s final hearing was held hours after the United States and Turkey had agreed to a deal that would ensure his release. Citing US officials it did not identify, the Post said negotiations began during the UN General Assembly in September. The Post reported that the US offered to reduce sanctions if Turkey would reduce charges enough to permit the courts to release him with allowance for time already served. Inside the Turkish courtroom, the prosecutors who had originally demanded a 35-year sentence reduced their request to 10 years.

Prosecutors had originally swept up Brunson amid a widespread crackdown following the attempted 2016 coup. He was accused of conspiring with Kurdish separatists, whom the Turkish government considers to be terrorists, and with colluding with a Muslim cleric, living in Pennsylvania, whom Erdoğan has accused of orchestrating the attempted overthrow. Brunson, who has lived in Turkey and led a small congregation since 1993, steadfastly denied any involvement and professed his love for the country.

Brunson had first been put behind bars, without formal charges, on 7 October, 2016. Scores of headlines had appeared in the Turkish media, calling him everything from a “terrorist” priest to a CIA spy, but the legal file against him was sealed, even against his Turkish lawyer.

Only when his indictment was finally released, six weeks before his trial, had Brunson learned he was being charged formally with terrorism and espionage, calling for combined prison terms of 35 years. The indictment leveled three charges:

  • Engaging in missionary activities under the “cover” of humanitarian aid to Syrian asylum seekers arriving in Turkey. (Missionary work is technically legal in Turkey, but often regarded as a threat to national unity.)
  • Relations and ministry with Kurds “known” to have high connections within the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the state-labelled Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organisation (FETO)
  • Activities aimed at destabilising Turkey, carried out in support of the criminal FETO network

The prosecution’s case, often provided by witnesses who were permitted to remain anonymous, presented a tangle of suspcions that baffled Brunson and his lawyers.

A large section of the indictment included testimony of an unidentified witness who claimed that US citizens, working as missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Turkey, were colluding with the FETO movement and supporting the PKK by trying to win over Turkey’s ethnic Kurdish citizens to Mormon beliefs.

Brunson spent considerable time explaining to the court why he, an evangelical, is not Mormon and would have no connection to the LDS church. Another anonymous witness testified that Brunson’s church – along with all American churches as well as the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency – were members of a secret organisation, complete with a secret handshake, that controlled all church workers who live in other countries. While eyes rolled even in the Turkish media, the court regarded the testimony with sober attention.

Some witness testimonies in the indictment claimed that strong PKK sympathies were commonly expressed among the congregation in Brunson’s Izmir Resurrection Church. One anonymous source accused the church of displaying pro-PKK flags and slogans.

On 12 October, the Washington Post reported, some prosecution witnesses began to take back their original testimony. “One witness, Levent Kalkan, said that investigators misunderstood his original testimony that had implicated Brunson in harbouring coup suspects in 2016,” the Post reported.

“The man that Kalkan has said witnessed the protection of the fugitives appeared in court Friday to say that he had seen no such thing.

“’I never told Levent that,’ the witness, Yilmaz Demirjan, said,” according to the Post.

Andrew Brunson timeline

1993 – presentUS Protestant pastor Andrew Brunson involved in legally recognised church-related Christian ministry in Turkey.
15 July
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 JulyTurkish 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 OctoberBrunson detained with wife Norine, in Alsancak police station, Izmir; told he would be deported within 15 days as “threat to national security”.
19 OctoberNorine Brunson released from police detention.
20 OctoberAndrew Brunson moved to Harmandali Detention Centre (outskirts of Izmir), placed in solitary confinement.
9 DecemberSummoned (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 DecemberUS Senator James Lankford meets Turkish Justice Ministry officials in Ankara, the capital.
29 DecemberIzmir court rejects lawyer’s appeal to release Brunson.
3 January
Unnamed senior Turkish official to Wall Street Journal says claim that Brunson’s arrest related to his religious affiliation is "ludicrous".
15 February78 US Congress members write to Turkish President Erdogan, urging him to release Brunson.
9 MarchTurkish 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 MarchBrunson sends appeal letter to US President Trump.
30 MarchUS Secretary of State Tillerson meets Norine Brunson in Ankara.
15 MayAmerican Center for Law & Justice files petition to UN Human Rights Council for Brunson’s release.
16 MayTrump asks Erdogan in person during Washington DC visit to release Brunson.
Late May-JuneFlurry of Turkish media allegations against Brunson link him with Gulen movement, armed PKK separatists, CIA, "missionary" activities.
30 MayErdogan promises "retaliation" vs. countries holding Gulen movement suspects.
7 JulyWashington 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 JulyBrunson moved to shared cell in Kiriklar Maximum Security Prison in Izmir’s Buca district.
24 JulyNew charges of “espionage & insurgency” against Brunson reported in Turkish press.
24 AugustIzmir judge initiates video conference call with Brunson and his lawyer; pastor informed his official criminal charges are “spying and insurgency”.
25 AugustNew "state of emergency" Executive Order No. 694 authorises Erdogan to arrange to swap Turkish citizen prisoners for foreigners jailed in Turkey.
28 SeptemberErdogan publicly declares swap offer of Brunson for Gulen’s extradition.
5 OctoberTwo representatives of US Commission for International Religious Freedom visit Brunson at Kiriklar Prison.
15 NovemberBrunson’s daughter Jacqueline addresses US Helsinki Commission hearing, Washington DC.
3 January
Brunson’s 50th birthday.
11 JanuaryErdogan vows no extraditions to US until Gulen returned from US to Turkey.
23 JanuaryUS delegation visiting Ankara raises Brunson’s "wrongful detention".
9 MarchJacqueline Brunson addresses UN Human Rights Commission, Geneva.
13 MarchWritten indictment against Brunson leaked to Turkish press.
16 MarchIndictment accepted by Izmir 2nd Criminal Court; first trial date set for 17 April.
26 MarchBrunson’s North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis visits him at Kiriklar Prison.
17 AprilFirst 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 MaySecond 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 JulyCourt rules Andrew Brunson must remain in prison, dashing hopes of his imminent release.
25 JulyCourt orders Andrew Brunson to be moved from prison to house arrest.
14 AugustLawyer appeals arrest & travel ban to Izmir 2nd Court.
17 AugustIzmir 3rd Court rejects lawyer's appeal.
6 SeptemberHead prosecutor removed from the case
12 OctoberReleased 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.