(CNSNews.com) – American pastor Andrew Brunson faces up to 35 years in a Turkish prison after prosecutors presented a court with an indictment demanding a 20-year term for espionage and another 15 years for committing crimes on behalf of terror organizations.
The 50-year-old evangelical pastor from North Carolina, who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, has been incarcerated since late 2016, in a case that prompted personal appeals by President Trump and senior members of his administration to the Islamist leader of the NATO member-state.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported that the prosecutors’ prison sentence demand had been “accepted” by a court in the city of Izmir on Friday. However, the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ), which is advocating for his freedom, says that according to Brunson’s Turkish lawyer, the prosecutors are disputing that that step has yet been taken.
“Since the case remains sealed, we will have to wait for the coming weeks to see how this situation plays out,” said the ACLJ. “In the meantime, Pastor Andrew remains behind bars, separated from his family, now for almost a year and a half.”
According to the Anadolu report, Brunson is accused of carrying out espionage activities “under the guise of missionary operations,” and of working on behalf of two entities viewed by the state as terror groups – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the so-called Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization (FETO).
The PKK, which is also a U.S.-designed foreign terrorist organization, has been waging a separatist struggle with the Turkish state for three decades.
With regard to FETO, Turkey accuses Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish cleric and former close ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of organizing a failed coup attempt in 2016 and is demanding that the U.S. extradite him. Gulen denies responsibility.
Erdogan last fall suggested Turkey could free Brunson in exchange for Gulen, a move that led critics in the U.S. to accuse him of effectively holding the pastor as a hostage.
The indictment against Brunson, according to the Anadolu report, cites witnesses making various claims about a range of alleged activities, including:
--converting Kurds to Christianity and aiming to establish a Kurdish state for them (it noted that Brunson’s church held separate congregations for Kurds and used a Bible translated into Kurdish);
--trying to divide Turkey into pieces and giving “a small part to the administration” to FETO;
--helping formerly imprisoned PKK members to flee the country; and
--having prior knowledge of the coup attempt and expressing sadness at its failure.
Some pro-government media outlets have raised even more far-fetched scenarios, accusing Brunson of being a “high-level CIA agent” and even of masterminding the coup attempt – although it’s not clear whether those allegations are included in the indictment.
Last Tuesday the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), responding to an earlier report claiming prosecutors were demanding life imprisonment, urged the administration to step up efforts to win his freedom.
“We call again for his immediate release and, if this is not forthcoming, for the administration and Congress to impose targeted sanctions against those involved in this miscarriage of justice,” said the independent watchdog’s vice chairs, Sandra Jolley and Kristina Arriaga.
“USCIRF is appalled that Turkish officials are seeking a possible life sentence for Pastor Brunson and are accusing him of leadership in a terrorist organization,” said the two, who visited the pastor prison last October.
Trump raised Brunson with Erdogan more than once during a visit to Washington last May, and now-outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has done so too on several occasions, including during a visit to Turkey last month.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) had called on the administration to impose sanctions against Turkish officials under the Global Magnitsky Act, a 2016 law that allows for punitive measures against human rights abusers globally.
Lankford said the U.S. should deny entry to Turkish officials “knowingly responsible for the wrongful or unlawful prolonged detention of citizens or nationals of the United States.”
Relations between Washington and Ankara have been strained over several issues, including the U.S. decision not to extradite Gulen, human rights abuses in Erdogan’s post-coup crackdown, and the imprisonment of U.S. citizens and consular employees in Turkey.
A key ally of the U.S. in the fight against ISIS in Syria is the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish group which Erdogan labels terrorists due to links with the PKK. Turkey last January launched an armed assault against the YPG in north-western Syria, and on Sunday announced that it has now captured the city of Afrin from the militia.
During a mid-February visit by Tillerson to Ankara, the two NATO partners agreed to set up working groups to address major irritants in the relationship.
As part of that process Tillerson and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu were to have met on Monday, but with Tillerson’s coming departure from the State Department the visit was postponed.