Brunson freed, now what?

The Brunson case seems to have served political interests but not the cause of judicial independence.
Sunday 14/10/2018
US pastor Andrew Brunson (C-R) arrives at his home after being released from prison in Izmir, last July. (Reuters)
Crisis fatigue. US pastor Andrew Brunson (C-R) arrives at his home after being released from prison in Izmir, last July. (Reuters)

So, a happy ending for American Evangelist pastor Andrew Brunson and his family. Although he was sentenced to 3 years, 1 month and 15 days in prison, Brunson became a free man on October 12. He is free to leave Turkey, to meet a joyful crowd in Washington. Months of agony ended with another seeming parody of the judicial process in Turkey.

Brunson may leave Turkey with a bitter taste of oppression, just as thousands of others — many of them foreign nationals — know. Were the legal proceedings against Brunson all for nothing? Not if you ask autocrats and wannabe autocrats. The Brunson case is another successful exercise in hollowing out the justice system.

In a world where mafia methods are increasingly used as operational policies of the state, it seems there is a new era. It is one in which international relations will be defined by the treatment of individuals, some of whom are targeted as hostages and portrayed as victims.

The frustration and anger surrounding Brunson’s fate — a good example of this trend — reached the point of frenzy by the time the Turkish court ordered his release.

It was reminiscent of the case of Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader who was arrested and put on trial in the United States and became a key witness against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government on its alleged breach of Iranian sanctions.

As with Zarrab, so with Brunson. The future of political, economic and even military relations between two key allies seemed to depend on a single court ruling.

Ahead of the Turkish court’s verdict, Howard Eissenstat, a non-resident fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, mused on the imponderables. If Brunson isn’t released, further storms are certain, Eissenstat said. If he is released, things look brighter. In neither scenario does the relationship “end” or become “healthy.”

The court’s ruling means Eissenstat’s second scenario will be in play but it’s not as things will look brighter all around.

True, the allegations against Brunson were ridiculous. He was charged with espionage and collaborating with both the Gulenists and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) at the same time with the aim of overthrowing the Turkish government. It is well known that the Gulenists and the PKK are at odds with each other.

The real reason Brunson’s case caused US President Donald Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to take on Erdogan’s administration was his religious identity. The pastor belonged to Pompeo’s church and his case became a way for Trump to please a key voter base ahead of November’s midterm elections.

For both Trump and Pompeo, it was about winning a symbolic battle. After the October 12 ruling in the Turkish court, Trump can declare victory.

However, the outcome of the Brunson case won’t mean much to the nearly 50,000 others in Turkish prisons. Many of them are dissidents, facing bogus charges as the Turkish judiciary becomes increasingly subordinate to Erdogan’s super-presidential regime. The prisoners in Turkish jails will probably be regarded as an irrelevance in a United States overwhelmed by its victory in securing Brunson’s release.

The question remains: What will happen to the thousands of imprisoned people? There are four other prominent cases of detention and three of them are linked with the US Embassy. Their plight was recently highlighted in an article in the Washington Post by Henri Barkey, an expert on Kurdish affairs, and Eric Edelman, a former US ambassador.

Barkey and Edelman reminded the world of the facts of the detentions: ”Jailed since February 2017, Hamza Ulucay is a 37-year veteran of the US diplomatic service. Dollar bills found in his home were offered up by Turkish authorities as proof that Ulucay had something to do with the attempted July 15, 2016, coup d’etat against the Erdogan government. It is especially bizarre that Ulucay is alleged to have connections both to the network of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in the United States whom the government accuses of organising the failed coup, and to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the insurgency movement deemed terrorist by both the United States and Turkey.”

The article also mentioned other cases linked to the US Embassy:  Metin Topuz and Nazmi Mete Canturk.

The fourth detainee also has a link to the United States. Serkan Golge, a US citizen and NASA scientist, was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison on the charge of “belonging to a terror organisation responsible for the coup attempt in 2016.”

Relatives and friends of all four detainees say they, like Brunson, are captives held as pawns in a rough game of give-and-take between the two governments.

Then there are all the other political prisoners, including 175 journalists and several Kurdish politicians, not least former Peoples’ Democratic Party Chairman Selahattin Demirtas, and thousands of Gulenists. But the Trump administration may see them as a domestic issue.

Even with respect to Brunson, there are no clear answers to the question about quid pro quo between Ankara and Washington. If, as has been suggested, there was a secret deal, what were its terms? Erdogan has been very frustrated by the Zarrab-Halkbank case in the United States and has been struggling to deal with Turkey’s declining economy.

Perhaps the timing of the Brunson verdict may prove fortuitous. The mystery over Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who has been missing since October 2 when he visited the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, overlapped with the Brunson trial. Perhaps Erdogan may have calculated that granting Brunson his freedom will help change his image in Washington and will help the argument made by those who say the United States must not lose Turkey.

If so, there may be an end to the deterioration of relations. Perhaps there may even be the lifting of Magnitsky Act sanctions on Erdogan’s interior and justice ministers.

In a nutshell, the Brunson case seems to have served political interests but not the cause of judicial independence.