ANKARA, Turkey – A pastor from North Carolina imprisoned in Turkey on what many view as trumped-up terrorism charges finally gets his day in court on Monday, in the most high-profile of several cases involving American citizens swept up by Turkish police since a failed 2016 coup attempt.
Andrew Brunson, who has languished in a Turkish prison since October, 2016, faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted of charges claiming he supported both the secessionist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) guerrilla movement and the outlawed organization of Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen, whom the Turkish government of President Tayyip Erdogan says was behind the attempted coup.
The charges against Brunson, a Presbyterian pastor who
operated a church in the Turkish coastal city of Izmir without incident for 23 years before his arrest, have been widely slammed not just by his supporters, but also by a range of human rights groups, the U.S. government and other Christians in Turkey.
State Department authorities have referred to Brunson’s indictment
as “nonsense.” President Donald Trump, along with Vice President Mike Pence, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have all expressed their “deep concern” over the Brunson case, and have asked for the release of him and other Americans being held.
But U.S. efforts to secure Brunson’s freedom haven’t made any progress, leading some to question the strength of what was once a tight U.S.-Turkish relationship.
“Pastor Brunson has lost over 50 pounds; he has lost precious time with his family that can never be replaced,” CeCe Heil, executive counsel for the nonprofit American Center of Law and Justice (ACLJ) which represents Brunson in the U.S., told Fox News. “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.”
It’s widely understood that Erdogan and other Turkish officials were
hoping to make a “pastor-for-pastor” swap of Brunson and Gulen, whose extradition request from Turkey has stalled because of what U.S. officials have pointedly said is a lack of evidence of his role in the failed coup. Erdogan is also clearly irritated – some observers have said even enraged – over the recent conviction of a close former aide of his convicted in New York for helping evade sanctions against Iran.
“The DOJ has been in close contact over the extradition request,
and we do have an extradition treaty with Turkey,” said one official, noting that so far the Erdogan government has not produced enough evidence of Gulen's role to hold up in a U.S. court.
“And when President Erdogan goes on TV saying they should bring
the death penalty back for this one man, it doesn’t help,” continued the official, referring to a July 2016 speech in which he signaled the thatr the death penalty could be restored.
An official told Fox News that U.S.-Turkey relations are in the “worst
shape” they have been in decades, due in large part to the sweeping arrests of U.S. citizens including Brunson and others.
In February, a Turkish court sentenced NASA engineer and Houston
resident Serkan Golge, a dual U.S.-Turkish citizen, to seven and a half years' imprisonment over terrorism-related charges. This, after the main witness against him, a disgruntled relative, later recanted.
Another dual citizen, 26-year-old Nilufer
Sonmez, was released in February after almost a year in a Turkish jail. She was accused of using a cryptoprogram like that deployed by the coup plotters, though the program was in use by Turks throughout the nation. She remains in Ankara, the Turkish capital, unable to leave the country, regardless of her American citizenship.
Many of those implicated in the post-coup crackdown have said
Turkish defense lawyers fear repercussions if they back
much-loathed clients, adding to the legal woes. More than 100,000 Turks have been detained in the ongoing post-coup crackdown, with more than 50,000 charged on related matters, according to Turkey’s Ministry of the Interior.
“Pastor Brunson’s evidence defending against these accusations
has been left out and the translations of his text messages are inaccurate,” Heil said. “Furthermore, the majority of names mentioned, he has never even heard of. The majority of the indictment has nothing to do with Pastor Brunson.”
The official also highlighted that other dual U.S.-Turkish
citizens, like Golge, have been treated with the same “insane lack of due process.” Nonetheless, they are endeavoring to work out “practical solutions” within the legal framework -- such as the appeals process -- to secure the release of all Americans believed to be unjustly detained.
Golge is the only American thus far to have been formally
sentenced. U.S. officials at the highest levels maintain they are working to ensure that his sentence, and Brunson’s fate, will not simply be dragged out without a fierce diplomatic fight.
“We have not given up,” the official affirmed.