An American pastor who has spent the last year-and-a-half in jail in Turkey strongly rejected terror-related charges as his trial got underway on Monday (today), in a case that has raised tensions between Ankara and Washington.
Andrew Brunson, who ran a protestant church in the western city of İzmir, was detained by the Turkish authorities in October 2016 and then remanded in custody. If convicted, he risks up to 35 years in jail.
In an indication of the importance of the case for Washington, also in court were Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador at large for religious freedoms, and Senator Thom Tillis.
“I want the whole truth to be revealed. I reject all the accusations in the indictment. I haven’t been involved in any illegal activity,” Brunson told the court.
“I haven’t done anything against Turkey. On the contrary, I love Turkey. I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years,” added Brunson, who moved to the country in 1993 and then opened his Izmir church in 2010.
Wearing a white shirt and a black suit, Brunson was present in court in the district of Aliağa, north of İzmir, for the hearing.
Brunson, who has been jailed in İzmir since December 2016, has become a symbolic name in a string of arrests in Turkey and has received considerable attention from U.S. lawmakers.
The indictment accuses Brunson of being linked to the Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation, widely believed to have orchestrated the 2016 failed coup attempt, as well as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
Prosecutors demand 15 years of imprisonment for “committing crimes on behalf of terror organisations without being a member,” while up to 20 years were sought for “political or military espionage.”
The indictment claims that Brunson was involved in trying to convert Kurds to Christianity with the aim of establishing a Kurdish state for them.
His case has received considerable attention in U.S. media.
Brunson is from North Carolina, and he has lived in Turkey for 23 years.
His wife was in the courtroom, as were North Carolina senator Thom Tillis and U.S. envoy for religious freedom. Sam Brownback.
Brunson’s trial is one of several legal cases which have hurt ties between Turkey and the U.S.
The two countries are also at odds over Washington’s support for a Kurdish militia in northern Syria that Turkey considers a terrorist organisation.
Washington has called for Brunson’s release, while Erdogan suggested in 2017 that the pastor’s fate could be linked to that of U.S.-based Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, whose extradition Ankara has repeatedly sought to face charges over the coup attempt.
16 April, 2018