(CNSNews.com) – Almost two years since American pastor Andrew Brunson was first arrested in Turkey, a Christian advocacy group on Wednesday appealed to the United Nations’ top human rights body to do all in its power to secure his release, describing him as “a political prisoner being held as a bargaining chip for Turkey.”
Addressing the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Christophe Foltzenlogel of the European Center for Law and Justice (ECLJ) called into question the terrorism and espionage charges facing Brunson.
“Pastor Andrew peacefully lived out his religious beliefs in service to the people of Turkey for over two decades before being arrested and imprisoned on the grounds of ridiculous and baseless charges,” he said.
Brunson is accused, among other things, of supporting the U.S.-based Turkish Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan whom Erdogan accuses of responsibility for a failed military coup in July 2016.
Erdogan wants the U.S. to extradite Gulen, and has hinted that his government could agree to swap Brunson for Gulen.
Brunson denies the charges against him; Gulen denies involvement in the abortive coup.
“Pastor Brunson’s ongoing trial in Turkey began on April 16, 2018,” Foltzenlogel told the HRC.
“It is evident that this is a sham trial, and, as indicated by President Erdogan’s multiple demands to swap Pastor Brunson for Fethullah Gulen, Pastor Brunson is undoubtedly a political prisoner being held as a bargaining chip for Turkey.”
Foltzenlogel went on to quote Brunson himself:
“I have become a political bargaining chip, a hostage to use against the United States in negotiations. Let it be clear, I am in prison not for anything I have done wrong, but because of who I am – a Christian pastor.”
Brunson was first arrested more than 700 days ago, on October 7, 2016. Erdogan has rejected or ignored multiple requests from the U.S. – including direct appeals from President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and others – to release and send him home.
In July, the court in Izmir where his trial is being held ordered his transfer from prison to house arrest, citing “health problems.” A travel ban applies.
Turkish officials have repeatedly stated that the country’s courts are independent of the executive branch. (The State Department’s most recent annual human rights report refers to “executive interference with independence of the judiciary, affecting the right to a fair trial and due process” as a serious problem in Turkey.)
In his HRC presentation, Foltzenlogel pointed out that, contrary to Ankara’s insistence that its courts must rule on the question of Brunson’s release, a Turkish executive order issued in August 2017 (E.O. 694, article 74) gives the foreign and justice ministers – with the approval of the president – the authority to return a prisoner to his home country.
The ECLJ jurist ended his statement by listing the fundamental rights being denied Brunson, and highlighting the responsibilities of U.N. member states.
“By detaining and imprisoning Pastor Brunson because of his religious expression, peaceful association, and assembly of religious believers, Turkey is violating not only its obligations under the U.N. Charter, but its own constitution, as well as Pastor Brunson’s fundamental rights,” he said.
He listed those rights as freedom of religion and belief, freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association.
“Therefore, these violations concern not only Turkey, but every member state and every agency of the U.N.,” Foltzenlogel said. “Turkey has violated all of these protections by arresting and detaining an innocent pastor in prison nearly two years, based on the hearsay testimony of secret witnesses.”
He urged the council to “make any and all efforts to secure Pastor Andrew’s release and safe return to the United States.”
The Strasbourg-based ECLJ is an affiliate of the American Center for Law and Justice, (ACLJ), which is leading advocacy in the United States for Brunson’s release.
“Pastor Andrew has committed no crime, and it seems apparent this awful ordeal is just the nasty result of political paranoia and gamesmanship by Turkey,” the ACLJ said on Wednesday.
“It is time for the international community to stand up and tell Turkey ‘enough is enough.’ The freedom of an innocent American pastor, father, and husband is in jeopardy. We need maximum pressure on Turkey to stop this political gamesmanship, stop violating its own Constitution which claims to protect religious freedom, and let Pastor Andrew go.”
An ACLJ petition calling for Brunson’s release has attracted almost 600,000 signatures.