A representative from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) attended a court proceeding in Turkey against Pastor Andrew Brunson, 50, an American citizen falsely arrested in October 2016 in the post-coup sweep of Turkish “dissidents.”
Sandra Jolley, vice chair of the commission described the proceeding as follows: “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. 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.”
The hearing was then postponed to July 18.
Brunson lived and worked in Turkey for the past 22 years leading a small Protestant church. He was held without charges until March 2018 when he was indicted for “spying” and “insurgency” against the government and membership in an unnamed terror organization.
Turkish prosecutors are seeking a 35-year prison term.
The organization was later named as the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO), a group accused of being behind the July 2016 coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. FETO is part of the network of Erdogan’s arch rival Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamic cleric living in the U.S. The indictment named a secret witness who said Brunson was also aiding the PKK, a Kurdish terror group, and was agitating for an independent Kurdistan.
The charges, which the U.S. believes are false, come within the context of sweeping arrests and similar charges of tens of thousands of Turkish judges, police officers, soldiers, university professors, civil servants and more in Erdogan’s post-coup crackdown against perceived dissidents.
In Brunson’s case, Erdogan appears to be holding the pastor as leverage in exchange for Gulen. Last September, Erdogan said, “They want a pastor from us, you have a pastor, too. Extradite him so that we can prosecute him.”
Last October, Jolley, along with fellow USCIRF vice chair Kristina Arriaga, were allowed to see Brunson in the Kiriklar Prison near Izmir. To date, they have been the only Americans allowed to see the pastor besides family members and embassy officials.
After the visit, Jolley and Arriaga wrote, “Since his imprisonment [the pastor] he has lost over 50 pounds. What happened … was an almost surreal hour of discussion with a man still in shock at what had happened to him. How could a NATO ally do this to an American citizen? How could this happen in a country where he had spent more than two decades of his life helping people? What were the charges against him? When might he get a trial? If convicted, will he be in jail for the rest of his life?
“Brunson asked us these questions because the only thing certain about his life is the four walls that surround him and define the limits of his world. He eats, sleeps and lives in that cell, and is allowed only to leave it once a week for a scheduled visit with his wife or a consular officer. Most of these visits are conducted in a room divided by a Plexiglas wall. He has had no due process.”
After the latest court proceedings, Jolley said, “It is unthinkable that a friend and fellow NATO ally would jeopardize our vital and historic ties. 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. We are looking to the Turkish judiciary to uphold Pastor Brunson’s innocence.”