US pastor on trial in Turkey hopes for release

Andrew Brunson was pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church, serving a small Protestant congregation in Turkey’s third largest city.
Wednesday 18/07/2018
A prisoner transport vehicle arrives for the trial of US pastor Andrew Brunson, held on charges of aiding terror groups, in Aliaga, north of Izmir, on July 18, 2018. (AFP)
A prisoner transport vehicle arrives for the trial of US pastor Andrew Brunson, held on charges of aiding terror groups, in Aliaga, north of Izmir, on July 18, 2018. (AFP)

The trial of a US pastor who is accused of aiding terror groups and engaging in espionage has resumed in a town in western Turkey.

Andrew Craig Brunson, a 50-year-old evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina, was arrested in the aftermath of a 2016 coup attempt for alleged links to outlawed Kurdish rebels, as well as a network led by US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey blames for the unrest. Brunson, who faces up to 35 years in prison, denies the charges, calling them “shameful and disgusting.” 

The third hearing in the case that has strained Turkish-US relations opened in Aliaga on Wednesday.

President Donald Trump has called for his release and the US Senate passed a bill last month including a measure that prohibits Turkey from buying F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets because of Brunson’s imprisonment and Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system.

Defense lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt said Turkish courts can remand defendants in detention while evidence is collected, to prevent any interference. That process is expected to be concluded on Wednesday when the final three prosecution witnesses are due to be heard, meaning he could be freed for the remainder of the trial.

“We have been saying that he must be released under the law since day one,” Halavurt said. “We expect him to be released following the completion of the evidence collection.”

Philip Kosnett, US charge d’affaires in Turkey, told reporters outside the courtroom before the hearing began that Brunson’s case was a critical one for the United States and had ramifications for its relationship with Turkey.

“The sooner Andrew Brunson can be reunited with his family the sooner we can start focusing on other issues in the relationship,” he said.

Brunson was pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church, serving a small Protestant congregation in Turkey’s third largest city, south of the Aegean town of Aliaga where he is now on trial.

His trial is one of several legal cases which have raised tensions between Washington and Ankara. A US judge sentenced a Turkish bank executive in May to 32 months in prison for helping Iran evade US sanctions, while two locally employed US consulate staff in Turkey have been detained.

The NATO allies are also at odds over US policy in Syria, where Washington’s ally in the fight against Islamic State is a Kurdish militia Turkey says is an extension of the PKK, which has waged a three-decade insurgency in southeast Turkey.

Hints of possible rapprochement have appeared, however, with an agreement for Turkish and U.S. military patrols around the northern Syrian town of Manbij. The State Department said on Monday it was working with Turkey on the possible sale of a Raytheon Co Patriot missile defense system.

The Turkish government says Brunson’s case will be decided by the courts. But Erdogan has previously linked his fate to that of Fethullah Gulen, the US-based Muslim cleric Turkey blames for the coup attempt and whose extradition Ankara seeks.

Gulen has denied having any link to the failed coup, in which at least 250 people were killed.

(The Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)