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US Pastor Held by Turkey Charged with Supporting Terror, Faces 35 Years

Recep Erdogan Turkey AKP Turkish emergency decrees US pastor Turkey
Ankara (GPA– Pastor Andrew Brunson, a US national in Turkish custody since October 2016, has officially been charged with “supporting terrorism” and faces 35 years.

In September of last year, we first published a story about Andrew Brunson, a US national who has dedicated 23 years to Christian missionary work in Turkey.

Recep Erdogan Turkey AKP Turkish emergency decrees
Turkish President Recep Erdogan
Image: Flickr – Democracy Chronicles

Brunson, who was initially arrested in October of 2016 as a part of sweeping purges that followed a failed coup against Turkish President Recep Erdogan, made the news last year when Erdogan decided to use him as a bargaining chip with the US. This offer was first made public in September when Erdogan was speaking to a group of police officers who he told about a vague offer he made to Washington to trade ‘one pastor for another.’

Erdogan’s comment about the pastor he wants to be returned, of course, was in reference to exiled cleric/former Erdogan ally Fethullah Gulen. As reported at the time, Erdogan framed this possible trade as a no-brainer since it would be “easier for [the US]” to give up Gulen because “the one that we have [in our hands – Brunson] is being tried, the one you have [in your hands – Gulen] is not being tried.” During this pep rally with police Erdogan also claimed that Turkey had “given [Washington] all the documents necessary [for the extradition],” of Gulen.

According to Turkey, they also have strong evidence against Brunson which hypothetically should make Washington eager for his extradition. Yet upon further examination, the case for detaining Brunson looks incredibly weak and is likely based on accusations stemming from the testimony of a single anonymous informant.

Related: Erdogan Offers Imprisoned US Pastor in Exchange for Gulen

Despite having this supposed concrete evidence, there were questions surrounding the validity of the Turkish government’s case against Brunson from the moment he was arrested.

For starters, Brunson was not even initially charged with a crime when he was taken into custody in October 2016 by the police in Izmir, Turkey. Turkish records show there were no charges against Brunson when he was taken into custody at this time and instead he was slated to be deported for posing a “threat to national security,” which is a common excuse for deportations but doesn’t imply criminal activity.

While these initial claims by Ankara were troubling for Brunson and his supporters back home, there was still hope he would simply be deported. This changed after he had been in custody for 63 days when Turkish authorities moved him to a counter-terrorism center also in Izmir. Although further requests have been made by the US for Brunson’s return since this period, including under the Trump Regime, they have never even been spoken of by Turkish officials.

Shortly after Brunson was booked into the specialized detention facility he appeared in Turkish court where a judge had the options of deporting Brunson, releasing him under supervision until trial, or keeping him in custody pending legal proceedings. The judge in Brunson’s case chose the third option and extended the pastors detention indefinitely without access to a lawyer and even kept from meeting US diplomatic staff stationed in Turkey.

Related: Turkey Arrests UN Judge, Violates Diplomatic Immunity

Once Brunson was firmly in the grips of the Turkish ‘justice system’ he learned of a growing list of accusations against him being investigated by Turkish intelligence.

The first accusations against Brunson – again, based on the testimony of one anonymous source – included the charge that the pastor was guilty of “speaking positively about the Gulenist movement,” and “speaking positively about the Kurdistan Workers Party.” While nobody can really know if these first two accusations are true (or even crimes) Ankara also made sure to level heavier claims such as alleging that the pastor was suspected of “membership in an armed terrorist organization.”

If this wasn’t enough, after an extended period of no noticeable developments Brunson’s case, Ankara later expanded their ‘investigation’ – still based on the one statement – to include charges that Brunson was “gathering state secrets for espionage, attempting to overthrow the Turkish parliament and government, and to change the constitutional order,” which the Turkish government implies is related to the failed coup. Other charges listed in the indictment of Brunson also include attempting “to exploit ethnic and religious differences to divide our country, dismantle it and incite internal unrest.”

Now, as Brunson approaches the year and a half anniversary of his time in Turkish custody, the courts officially announced the charges the US pastor must stand trial for on Tuesday. From what has been reported in Turkish media so far, it appears this indictment includes most of the initial charges against Brunson.

Related: UN Calls on Turkey to End State of Emergency, Torture, Purging Civil Servants

According to the indictment, Brunson will be standing trial for both allegedly supporting Gulen and the PKK as well charges of espionage. If found guilty of supporting either aforementioned organization Brunson faces up to 15 years in prison. If he is also convicted of espionage, this could add up to another 20 years to his sentence.

Despite the public nature of this case, it is never safe to assume Erdogan won’t send Brunson to prison because of his US citizenship. Turkey has already imprisoned multiple people with US citizenship, such as the NASA scientist Serkan Golge as well as issued warrants for Turks in the US including professional basketball player Enes Kanter.

With US-Turkish relations at an all time low – and with Turkey’s Syrian operation adding fuel to the fire – and the seemingly guaranteed safety of Gulen in the US, it is unlikely that an end will be negotiated between the two NATO members for Brunson’s release before trial. Turkey does have the option to release Brunson under state supervision until he is sentenced while also blocking him from fleeing the country but this is also unlikely as Erdogan will likely be inclined to keep the pastor as collateral for dealing with Washington as well as for use as a political prop to bolster Erdogan’s image at home.

According to the US there is likely no case for the arrest of Brunson just like there is likely no evidence against Gulen, despite Erdogan’s claims that he has “given [the US] all the documents necessary [for the extradition]” of the Turkish exile. Regardless of what is true though, Andrew Brunson is likely to remain trapped by Ankara’s ambitions and will be included among the reasons behind growing western hostility towards Turkey. The more this cycle of hostility continues the more likely the pastor is to become an issue while simultaneously creating more of the friction that led to his arrest.