(CNSNews.com) – Turkey’s Islamist government, which President Trump accuses of persecuting an American pastor on trial for espionage, is complaining that the State Department’s just-released annual report on human rights unfairly smears Turkey by relying on the views of “terrorists.”
Turkey’s foreign ministry said Sunday the report presented “the allegations and accusations of terrorist affiliated organizations” as fact, and was “full of false portrayals, unacceptable accusations and allegations.”
The State Department report was released shortly after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for snap elections for June 24 – 17 months ahead of schedule.
The elections, which will take place under a state of emergency, will speed up Turkey’s shift to a powerful presidential system, a move narrowly approved in a politically-charged referendum a year ago.
The emergency, which has been renewed five times, was first declared in response to an abortive July 2016 coup attempt which Erdogan blames on a U.S.-based Turkish Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, whom he has sought to have extradited ever since.
The Turkish state calls Gulen’s movement a terrorist group that has “tried to infiltrate into state institutions in order to capture the Turkish state from within.”
The foreign ministry statement said the State Department human rights report ignored the threat posed to Turkey by Gulen, and added that it was “not a coincidence” that the document had been prepared by the country that hosts him.
The State Department report says a massive post-coup crackdown saw more than 100,000 civil servants’ jobs lost or suspended, more than 50,000 arrests, and the closure of more than 1,500 nongovernmental organizations on terror-related grounds.
It reports abuses including alleged torture of detainees, forced disappearance; arbitrary arrest and detention, closure of media outlets and blocking of websites, restrictions on freedoms of assembly, association and movement, and “executive interference with independence of the judiciary, affecting the right to a fair trial and due process.”
Among those arrested in the post-coup sweep was U.S. citizen Andrew Brunson, an evangelical pastor who has been in custody for 18 months, and went on trial last week on charges of terrorism and espionage.
Brunson, a North Carolina native who has worked in Christian ministry in Turkey for more than 22 years, was accused of supporting Gulen as well as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Last year, Erdogan suggested that Turkey may release Brunson in exchange for the U.S. handing over Gulen.
The State Department report notes that Brunson faces “charges of membership in an armed terrorist group, espionage, and attempts to overthrow the state. Evidence underlying the prosecutor’s accusations against him, widely believed to be political in nature, remained elusive.”
Brunson appeared in court last Monday, and denied all charges. The trial is set to resume on May 7, and in a blow for him and his supporters, he was ordered to remain incarcerated.
In one glimmer of good news reported by his wife late Friday, Brunson was moved from a prison with poor conditions to a facility where he had been held previously, Buca prison in Izmir.
Sixteen hours earlier, Norine Brunson had urged supporters to “please pray that he be moved back [to Buca] until the next hearing, and pray for much needed grace. I saw him today and he is not doing well at all,” she said. “This is a pressing need!
Senators warn Erdogan: ‘Other measures will be necessary’
The Trump administration has thrown its backing behind Brunson, with officials from the president down raising the matter with Turkish leaders and authorities.
Sam Brownback, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, attended the recent court hearing, and Trump voiced support afterwards on his Twitter feed, saying the pastor was “being persecuted in Turkey for no reason.”
“They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is,” the president tweeted. “Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!”
Brunson also has growing support in the U.S. Congress. On Friday 66 U.S. Senators from both parties signed a letter to Erdogan demanding his release, and warning that “other measures will be necessary to ensure that the government of Turkey respects the right of law-abiding citizens and employees of the United States to travel to, reside in, and work in Turkey without fear of persecution.”
The senators charged that Brunson “is being used as a political pawn by elements of the Turkish government bent on destroying the longstanding partnership between two great nations.”
They also expressed concern about a religious freedom element.
“[T]he suggestion in the indictment that the actions of Pastor Brunson to explain his religious convictions to others was somehow meant to undermine the Turkish state brings a new and deeply disturbing dimension to the case,” the letter said.
Among other things, the indictment against Brunson reportedly accuses him of “dividing and separating the country by means of Christianization” of the Turkish people.