A U.S. pastor held in Turkey on dubious terror charges began trial Monday, rejecting accusations of aiding an Islamist movement and spying against Turkey’s government.
Turkish authorities arrested pastor Andrew Craig Brunson of North Carolina in October of 2016 after a failed military coup in the country. They arrested him ostensibly on charges of active membership in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and links to Fethullah Gülen, an imam living in Pennsylvania who Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused of orchestrating the coup. Turkish authorities have yet to produce concrete evidence for the charges against Brunson, who flatly denied them on Monday according to The Associated Press.
“I don’t accept any of the allegations or accusations,” Brunson said, according to the AP. “I did not engage in any illegal activity. I had no relations with anyone engaged in such activity. I am a Christian pastor. I did not join an Islamic movement. Their aims and mine are different.”
Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, and Republican North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis observed the first day of the trial.
Brunson’s case has been a source of dispute between U.S. and Turkish leadership and is at the center of Erdogan’s efforts to strong-arm other countries into extraditing his accused political enemies. The development of Brunson’s trial and its outcome will demonstrate how far Erdogan is willing to go to use Brunson as leverage to force Gülen’s extradition, which the U.S. has so far refused on grounds of lack of evidence of his involvement in the coup.
Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former member of the opposition party in Turkey’s parliament, said in 2017 that he doubted Brunson would receive a fair trial given what he says is Erdogan’s true reason for having Brunson imprisoned.
“The Turkish government has no intentions of providing Pastor Brunson a fair trial,” Erdemir said, according to The Christian Post.
“Ankara sees Brunson as a hostage that they can use as leverage in their relations with the United States,” Erdemir added.
Erdogan threatened in May of 2017 that Turkey would not release any foreign captives unless their respective home countries extradited his enemies. When President Donald Trump demanded in Erdogan direct his government to “expeditiously” return Brunson to the U.S., Erdogan retorted “Give him (Gulen) to us, and we will try (Brunson) and return him,” according to AP.
A Turkish court approved the indictment against Brunson that he converted Kurds to Christianity in order to foment dissidence. The indictment was based on alleged digital evidence and the testimonies of alleged witnesses, three of whom are secret witnesses. The indictment has sparked claims among U.S. advocacy groups that Turkish authorities arrested and are trying Brunson simply because of Christian faith, since the indictment allegedly labels “Christianization” a terrorist act. A digital petition demanding Brunson’s release posted by the American Center for Law and Justice has gained over half a million signatures.
Prosecutors are seeking a total of 35 years imprisonment for Brunson — 15 years for alleged crimes linked to Gülen and 20 years for allegedly using his religious work as a cover to obtain state secrets for purposes of espionage.
Ismail Cem Halavurt, Brunson’s lawyer, told the AP that he expects the trial to result in an acquittal for Brunson since, in his view, the indictment is “weak” and lacks evidence.
“We think we can debunk these claims tomorrow,” Halavurt said on Sunday ahead of the trial, according to ABC.
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