US pastor faces terror charges in fraught trial in Turkey
By ZEYNEP BILGINSOY and MEHMET GUZEL | The Associated Press
IZMIR, Turkey (AP) â" An American pastor imprisoned in Turkey is going on trial for alleged terror ties and spying in a case that has increased tensions between Washington and Ankara.
Andrew Craig Brunson, a 50-year-old evangelical pastor from North Carolina, is facing up to 35 years in prison on charges of âcommitting crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a memberâ and âespionage.â The trial begins Monday in western Izmir province.
Brunson was arrested in December 2016 for alleged links to both an outlawed Kurdish insurgent group and the network of the U.S.-based Muslim cleric who Turkey blames for a masterminding a failed military coup that year. The cleric, Fethullah Gulen, denies the claim.
Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for 23 years, has denied all allegations, saying t hat he solely worked as a pastor.
The Turkish government has clearly linked Brunsonâs case with its determination to force the U.S. to extradite Gulen â" and some see the pastor as a diplomatic pawn.
The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative Christian group in the U.S., has called Brunson a âhostage of the Turkish government.â A petition has garnered more than half a million signatures, claiming that the case was putting Christianity on trial.
Brunsonâs lawyer, Ismail Cem Halavurt, told The Associated Press on Sunday he expects the pastorâs acquittal, arguing that the âweakâ indictment lacked sufficient evidence to make the case hold up in court.
American officials have repeatedly requested that Brunson be released â" President Donald Trump himself asked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to have his government âexpeditiouslyâ return the pastor to the U.S.
But Erdogan fired back at Washington, demanding that the U.S. first return Gulen.
âYou give him to us and weâll give you this one,â he said, referring to Brunson.
Turkey has submitted an extradition request to the U.S. for Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, but so far it has not been granted. That has created festering frustration in the Turkish government, which has hunted down tens of thousands of alleged Gulen supporters and either imprisoned them or fired them from government jobs.
Brunson has served as the pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church with a small Protestant congregation. He was first detained in October 2016 with his wife, Norine Brunson, who was later released.
Brunsonâs lawyer said he was healthy but âdemoralizedâ after being stuck behind bars, having missed his daughterâs engagement and another childâs graduation.
The Izmir prosecutorâs indictment against Brunson claims he was in contact with top-level executives of Gulenâs network and the outlawed Kurdistan Worker sâ Party, or PKK. Both are designated terror groups in Turkey. Brunson is accused of acting in âparallel and coordinated fashionâ with them, aiming to âdivideâ the country.
âWe think we can debunk these claims tomorrow,â Brunsonâs lawyer said.
The prosecutor also accuses Brunson of espionage, saying Brunson acted âas an agent of unconventional warfare,â gathering intelligence with religious work as his cover. The indictment â" based on the testimonies of witnesses, including three secret ones, and alleged digital evidence â" claims the pastor worked to convert Kurds to Christianity to sow discord.
Halavurt called the use of secret witnesses a âserious woundâ in Turkeyâs legal system that has contributed to Brunsonâs suffering, and he argues that the spying accusation is âcompletely baseless.â
The lawyer said he is opposed to the âpoliticizationâ of Brunsonâs case and says his client wants to remain in Turkey if heâ s acquitted.Source: Google News