A 50-year-old American pastor who had already spent more than 500 days in a Turkish jail without a charge could soon face a veritable life sentence - possibly 35 years - in a case his attorneys and many supporters call a sham.
A Turkish prosecutor on Tuesday was reported to have made the request for the long prison term in the case of Andrew Brunson, who until being swept up with tens of thousands of others following a 2016 aborted coup attempt in Turkey had quietly operated a church in the coastal city of Izmir for 23 years.
But Brunson's U.S attorney, CeCe Heil, told Fox News on Thursday that Brunson's legal representative in Turkey was finally able to meet "face to face" with the prosecutor earlier that morning, and was told he has not yet turned an indictment.
Brunson is accused without formal charge of being an "executive" in the Fetullah Gulen organization, which the Turkish government of President Tayyip Erdogan blames for the coup attempt. Brunson has vigorously denied being part of the Gulen organization - which itself has aggressively fought back accusations it was involved in the coup attempt.
Brunson is specfically being investigated over accusations that he accessed covert documents with the intention of scheming to overthrow the government, according to Turkish media reports.
Turkey has pressed for the extradition of Gulen, who lives in a compound in Pennsylvania with a number of his followers. U.S. officials say Turkey has not provided enough evidence of Gulen's involvement in the attempted coup, and have declined to move forward with the extradition process.
“Incredibly, no evidence has been put forth to substantiate any of the ridiculous accusations against Pastor Brunson," Heil, executive counsel for the non-profit organization the American Center of Law and Justice (ACLJ), which represents Brunson in the U.S., told Fox News in an interview. "Although he has been allowed legal representation since Dec. 9, 2016, all discussions with his attorney are recorded, and his legal file has been sealed, completely destroying the ability to prepare an adequate defense, and obliterating all rights to due process."
Heil, who has started a petition for Brunson's release, sees at least some possibility of progress now. “If the case now moves forward, the file should no longer be sealed, and Pastor Brunson and his attorneys should finally be able to have access to the alleged evidence and secret witness.”
The accusations are reportedly centered on testimony from one undisclosed witness, who claimed Brunson received money from Gulen’s network for missionary work. Brunson has vehemently rebuffed those allegations, insisting he is devout Christian and peaceful pastor, and would never endeavor to fund Islamist movements.
Heil initially confirmed to Fox News the prosecutors are going for 35 years behind bars, which she noted is akin to a life sentence, but it is not yet clear when such an indictment will be made official. Brunsin has been held for more than a year-and-a-half in detainment without charge.
If the indictment is made, the court has 15 days to return a decision on the indictment. If approved, the case will proceed, and the prosecution phase will begin.
“During his incarceration, Pastor Brunson has lost over 50 pounds, he has lost precious time with his family that can never be replaced,” said Heil. “But worst of all, he has lost hope wondering how Turkey – a NATO ally and a country he loves and served for over two decades has been able to hold him hostage.”
Last September, Erdogan suggested Brunson would only be released if Washington hands over Gulen – reinforcing the belief Brunson was being used as a “pastor for pastor” political pawn.
But other analysts told Fox News that the spotlight on pressing charges against Brunson at this time likely has more to do with Turkey’s mounting concern over the upcoming sentencing of a Turkish banker who was convicted earlier this year over a billion-dollar plot to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Deputy General Manager for international banking at Turkey’s largest state bank, Halkbank, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, 47, was characterized by New York prosecutors as the go-between who helped Iran deceptively gain access to billions of dollars in petrodollar funds. Seven co-defenders in the case remain at large.
But one defendant – prominent Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, 34 – pleaded guilty late last year. He took the witness stand to chronicle the illegal enterprise, and said the scheme was endorsed by the “highest levels” of the Turkish government.
Atilla has denied conspiring with Zarrab or playing a part in any criminal activity.
The case has been a very sore point in an increasingly difficult relationship between the U.S and Turkey - once the closest of NATO allies. Erdogan, who was not named in the indictment despite witness testimony he himself approved of the scheme, personally raised the matter in a meeting with President Trump.
Atilla is set to be sentenced April 11 in Manhattan, and faces a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison - giving weight to the notion Brunson may be paying the price of that case.
A U.S. State Department official told Fox News on Wednesday they are working to verify details regarding Brunson’s charges, and that since his arrest, consular officers have visited him regularly, including their last visit on Feb. 27.
“Pastor Andrew Brunson has been detained in Turkey on false charges since October 2016 without a trial," said the official, who asked not to be named. "As Secretary Tillerson said during his visit to Turkey on February 16, we continue to have serious concerns about cases against U.S. citizens who have been arrested under the state of emergency. We call upon Turkey to release Pastor Andrew Brunson and other U.S. citizens whom we believe are being unjustly detained.”
Concerns are also being raised over Brunson’s health while behind bars. He was initially held, according to Heil, with 22 people in a cell designed for just eight. He is allowed a visit from his wife once a week.
Supporters say his Christian faith is all that is left to hold him up.
“Andrew has been walking by pure faith in the dark, but oh, for the Lord to break through with a sense of his presence,” his shattered wife Norine Brunson wrote on Facebook, encouraging supporters to pray for her husband. “May the lies – and those telling the lies – be exposed in the name of Jesus. May we have the Lord's perspective on all things – on Him, ourselves, eternity, suffering...”