- Wess Mitchell testified there will be “consequences” if Andrew Brunson is not acquired in Turkey
- Pastor Brunson faces up to 35 years in prison on charges of supporting terrorist activity
- “We are watching to see if the Turks adhere to their stated standards of justice,” Mitchell told Congress
A top State Department official told Congress on Wednesday that charges against an American pastor jailed in Turkey are “laughable.”
Wess Mitchell, the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, also testified that there will be “consequences” if the pastor, Andrew Brunson, is not acquitted.
“The Turks claim to have a high standard of justice, the indictment suggests otherwise. The claims in the indictment were laughable. This is clearly an innocent man,” Mitchell said in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
WATCH: State Department Official Calls Andrew Brunson Charges “Laughable”
Brunson faces up to 35 years in prison on charges of supporting terrorist activity. The 50-year-old North Carolina native was arrested in October 2016 and accused of being a supporter of Fethullah Gulen, an exiled cleric who Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames for the July 15, 2016 coup attempt in Ankara and Istanbul.
Erdogan has arrested tens of thousands of Turks as part of an effort to crackdown on Gulen’s network of followers, which Erdogan derisively refers to as the Fethullah Terrorist Organization (FETO).
Erdogan has pressed the U.S. government to extradite Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania. He has also openly indicated that he is using Brunson as leverage to force Gulen’s return.
“The U.S. wants a pastor from us. You have a pastor of your own; you give him to us, then we return pastor to you,” Brunson said in a speech in September 2017. (RELATED: Erdogan Admits To Using Jailed American Pastor As Bargaining Chip)
Brunson, who had operated Christian churches with his wife in Turkey for 23 years at the time of his arrest, has vehemently denied being a follower or supporter of Gulen’s.
“I’ve never done something against Turkey. I love Turkey. I’ve been praying for Turkey for 25 years. I want truth to come out,” Brunson said at the first hearing in his case, held on Monday. “I do not accept the charges mentioned in the indictment. I was never involved in any illegal activities.”
Mitchell said Wednesday that he recently met with Brunson’s wife, Norene. He also noted that North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican, and Sam Brownback, the ambassador for international religious freedom, attended Monday’s hearing. The judge overseeing the case delayed trial until May.
“We are watching to see if the Turks adhere to their stated standards of justice,” Mitchell told Congress.
“If that does not happen, we are considering options for consequences. We are in close coordination and touch with the Senate and the House in talking through some of those possible measures,” he added.
President Donald Trump has raised the issue of Brunson’s false imprisonment on several occasions with Erdogan, who has jailed thousands of Turks as part of a widespread crackdown following the failed July 2016 coup attempt. Trump commented publicly Tuesday for the first time on the Brunson case.
“Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason,” he wrote on Twitter. “They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!”
Brunson is being represented by the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian rights group operated by Jay Sekulow, a lawyer who is representing Trump in the Russia case.
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