(CNSNews.com) – American pastor Andrew Brunson has spent 580 days behind bars in Turkey, and will now remain incarcerated for at least 72 more, after a court Monday refused to release him pending his next appearance on terrorism and espionage-related charges, set for July 18.
After sitting through an 11-hour-long hearing in the court in Izmir province, the vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Sandra Jolley, expressed frustration and dismay.
“Today’s eleven hours of proceedings were dominated by wild conspiracies, tortured logic, and secret witnesses, but no real evidence to speak of. Upon these rests a man’s life,” she said in a statement afterwards.
“Worse still, the judge’s decision at the conclusion of today’s hearing to dismiss all of the witnesses called by Pastor Brunson’s defense without listening to a single minute of their testimony is simply unconscionable.”
Brunson denied allegations made by secret witnesses to the effect that he supported two groups outlawed as terrorist organizations in Turkey – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the movement headed by Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based Turkish Muslim cleric accused by Turkey of masterminding a failed coup attempt in 2016.
Brunson, originally from North Carolina, lived and worked in Turkey with his family for more than 22 years before he was swept up during a campaign of mass arrests following the coup attempt.
If convicted of espionage and committing crimes on behalf of terror organizations he could face a prison sentence of up to 35 years.
Among other charges, the indictment accuses him of “dividing and separating the country by means of Christianization” of the Turkish people.
Jolley said the USCIRF – an independent statutory body that advises Congress and the executive branch on international religious freedom – “believes firmly” in Brunson’s innocence.
“It is unthinkable that a friend and fellow NATO ally would jeopardize our vital and historic ties,” she said. “The American public and the U.S. Congress are deeply disturbed by the events of the past 18 months. The truth is that this case is part of a larger decline in personal freedoms, including religious freedom and human rights, that we are witnessing in Turkey in recent years.”
At the center of the rising authoritarianism is Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
He has ignored numerous appeals from the administration in Washington – from President Trump himself among others – to release Brunson and let him return home.
After the pastor’s last court appearance, Trump said in a tweet Brunson was “being persecuted in Turkey for no reason.”
“They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is,” the president added. “Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!”
A day after being sworn in, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with his Turkish counterpart, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, on the sidelines of a NATO ministerial in Brussels late last month, and Brunson came up in the discussion, according to readouts from both sides.
Last fall Erdogan suggested he may consider exchanging Brunson for Gulen, whom U.S. authorities have so far refused to extradite, citing insufficient evidence.
Along with other irritants in the relationship between the longstanding NATO allies, Brunson’s trial has fueled bilateral tensions.
Turkey is now preparing for early elections set for June 24 – 17 months earlier than scheduled – in a move that will speed up a move to sweeping new powers for the presidency. Erdogan, who has been at the helm as prime minister or president since 2003, could remain in power until 2028.
Meanwhile the campaign for Brunson’s freedom continues. A petition by the American Center for Law and Justice, which is leading advocacy in the U.S. and Europe for his release, has almost 560,000 signatures.
Turkey has long aspired to join the European Union. Formal negotiations have been underway since 2005, dogged in part by European concerns about undemocratic practices by the Erdogan government.