Two congressional committees are demanding that the Turkish government release an American pastor who has been imprisoned in Turkey for four months on bogus terrorism charges.
In a letter to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees called for the “unconditional release” of Andrew Brunson, a North Carolina native who has operated a small Protestant church with his wife in Turkey for 23 years.
“There appears to be no evidence to substantiate the charges against him for membership in an armed terrorist organization,” reads the letter, which is signed by a total of 78 lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle.
“Moreover, your government has repeatedly denied regular and appropriate access to legal counsel and American consular services,” the letter continues.
Brunson and his wife, Norine, were initially detained and held for deportation in October. But while Norine was released, the pastor was held in jail and later transferred to prison. The charges against him were upgraded to a terrorism rap. (RELATED: Christian Group Asks Trump Team For Help In Freeing Pastor Falsely Jailed In Turkey)
But little is known about the exact charges against Brunson. Turkish prosecutors have not provided details about the case to Brunson’s lawyers, though it has been reported that he has been accused of being a supporter of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who lives in exile in Pennsylvania.
Erdogan claims that Gulen directed a failed coup against his government on July 15. The Turkish government has labeled the Gulen network a terrorist organization, which it calls FETO (Fethullah Terrorist Organization). Tens of thousands of Turkish citizens have been arrested or forced out of their jobs as part of the purge of Gulenists.
Erdogan asked President Obama last year to deport Gulen to face terrorism charges in Turkey. The Daily Caller has also been told by knowledgeable sources the Islamist leader broached the subject with President Trump in a phone call earlier this month.
Brunson’s detention, which was likely not raised in the Trump-Erdogan phone call, raises the possibility that he is being held by Turkey as a bargaining chip in the Gulen saga.
In the letter to Erdogan, the lawmakers state that U.S. government officials have repeatedly raised the Brunson case with Turkish government officials.
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has personally discussed the issue with the Turkish government, including in a phone call in November and a private meeting with the Turkish ambassador in December.
“Unfortunately, high-level efforts to secure Mr. Brunson’s release have been unsuccessful. We have closely followed developments with this case, and are deeply disappointed,” reads the letter, which was led by Corker, Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, California Rep. Ed Royce and New York Rep. Eliot Engel.
“Now is the time for our countries to reaffirm respect for fundamental freedoms and the rule of law while reasserting our shared commitment to addressing security challenges through partnerships and cooperation.”
“In this spirit of partnership, we respectfully ask you to consider Mr. Brunson’s case and how the recent treatment of Mr. Brunson places significant strain not only on him and his family, but also on the robust bilateral relationship between the United States and Turkey.”
Jordan Sekulow, the executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which is working to free Brunson, told The Daily Caller that he is hopeful that the Trump administration and Congress will eventually be gain the pastor’s release. He said that the Trump administration has been made aware of the case.
Sekulow also blasted Turkey for behaving more like Iran than a NATO ally.
“They’re operating a lot more like an Iran right now, in his case,” Sekulow told TheDC.
Sekulow said that while the physical conditions under which Brunson is being held are not as poor as they would be in Iran, the charges against him and lack of evidence are similar to the terrorist state.
“His actual condition is not as poor in prison as would be in Iran. He’s able to meet with lawyer,” said Sekulow, while adding that “the serioiusness of the charges along with the lack of any evidence, that is very similar to an Iranian type move.”
He also said that Brunson’s daughter has put her wedding on hold until her dad is released from jail.
ACLJ on Thursday also submitted a letter to Sec. of State Rex Tillerson asking for his assistance in freeing Brunson.
The group, through its European affiliate, the European Centre for Law and Justice, also filed a petition with the United Nations asserting that Turkey has violated its own constitution “as well as Pastor Brunson’s fundamental rights: freedom of religion and belief, freedom of expression, freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.”