Turkish court keeps US pastor behind bars

Turkey’s decision to postpone US pastor Andrew Brunson’s hearing until July may be driven by electoral calculations and attempts at so-called hostage diplomacy.

al-monitor Norine Brunson, the wife of jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson — who is being held on charges of aiding terror groups — leaves the courthouse after Brunson's trial in Aliaga, north of Izmir, on May 7, 2018. Photo by GETTY/Bulent Kilic.

May 8, 2018

Ignoring pleas from President Donald Trump and other top US officials, a Turkish court Monday declined to free Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who was detained in October 2016 on espionage and terror charges. This occurred during a hearing in which a secret witness claimed the pastor was trying to set up a “Christian Kurdish state” carved out of Turkey. It also was claimed that coordinates for weapons dropped by American forces to Kurdish militants in Syria were “provided by Christian missionaries.” Prosecutors refused to allow witnesses for the defense to testify and the trial was adjourned until July 18.

The decision drew a flurry of rebukes from US senators and members of Brunson’s church who had hoped the North Carolina evangelist would be placed under house arrest, if not released entirely and allowed to return home. Republican Sen. James Lankford, who has been spearheading legislation to punish Turkey over its increasingly roguish behavior, called Brunson’s trial a "sham" that was "filled with secret witnesses and conspiracy theories.” The Oklahoma senator added in a Monday tweet, “Congress stands ready to take action, including sanctions, if Brunson is not released.”

Both the House and the Senate are mulling a freeze on weapons sales to Turkey over the Brunson issue and over the continued detention of other US citizens and local employees at US diplomatic missions in Istanbul and the southern city of Adana. There are also parallel efforts to deny visas to Turkish officials deemed responsible for what US officials call the unlawful incarceration of the Americans and the local employees. Until recently the State Department had pushed back against any sanctions, citing Turkey’s critical importance as a NATO ally and the need to allow diplomacy time to bring Ankara around.

Jeff Jeremiah, the state clerk of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church to which Brunson belongs, expressed disbelief at Monday’s proceedings. “As an American, the presenting of this type of ‘evidence’ in a courtroom by secret witnesses is alien. … As long as this trial continues, the standing of Turkey in the community of nations only suffers,” Jeremiah told Al-Monitor. “I am hopeful that with the arrival of the new secretary of state [Mike Pompeo] that a more assertive policy toward Turkey will be pursued.”

Sandra Jolley, the vice chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedoms and who was present at the trial, said in a statement, “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 told Al-Monitor in emailed comments: “We are utterly convinced of Pastor Brunson’s innocence. Where is the evidence, where is the proof, where is the documentation?”

One of the witnesses, identified as Eyup C., claimed that the tiny church run by Brunson in Izmir was “like a PKK camp.” PKK stands for the Kurdistan Workers Party, which has been leading an armed insurrection in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast region, initially for independence and now for self-rule. The witness said that he met Brunson seven years ago and that Brunson discriminated in favor of ethnic Kurdish members of his congregation who supported the PKK. 

Another witness identified as Ali D. said Brunson had received funding from an associate of Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric who is accused of masterminding the attempted July 2016 coup to overthrow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Brunson denied all the accusations, saying he would never support any terrorist groups. Upon hearing the court’s decision to keep him in custody, Brunson turned to his wife, Norine, who was present at the hearing, and began to cry. “I want to go back home,” he was quoted as saying by the pro-government daily Sabah. 

Brunson, who faces up to 35 years in prison, is receiving psychological help, and for good reason. The prosecution’s indictment paints him as a zealous disciple of a diabolical plot to destroy Turkey, featuring assorted villains ranging from the CIA and the FBI to the Mormon Church. “Evidence” against Brunson includes a video of a recipe sent to him by his daughter for a Middle Eastern dish called maqluba. The indictment says maqluba is a dish cooked by members of the Gulenist “armed terrorist organization” in their “cell houses.” Gulenist operatives involved in the botched coup supposedly continued to gorge on the spicy, upside-down meat-and-rice dish in special “maqluba parties” even after July 16. 

Many observers were baffled by the prosecutor’s decision to keep Brunson behind bars. When Trump and Vice President Mike Pence took to Twitter after the pastor’s first hearing on April to call for his immediate release, it was widely assumed that their entreaties, coupled with the threat of looming sanctions, would cause Ankara to pay heed. Might it be that Turkish officials actually believe that the pastor is guilty of the crimes of which he is being accused? Surely the fact that Brunson and his wife were in the United States during the failed coup and that they returned to Turkey in its wake flies in the face of prosecution charges that he helped plan it.

Burak Kadercan, an assistant professor of strategy and policy at the US Naval War College, told Al-Monitor, while speaking in a private capacity, that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party has “blurred the distinction between reality and chest-pounding conspiracy theory-laden jingoistic discourse to the extent that it's near impossible to comment."

A likely explanation, however, is that the Turkish government views Brunson as a bargaining chip that can be used to try to secure Gulen’s extradition from the United States. Kadercan speculated that Turkey might push for what he termed a “diet extradition” that is “asking for extradition” but settling for “the US putting more pressure on Gulenist establishments in the United States such as schools and NGOs.”

Turkey may also be aiming to haggle down fines that are expected to be slapped on state-owned Halkbank over its alleged involvement in helping Iran evade US sanctions.

Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank in Washington, argued that the postponement may also be linked to electioneering. He told Al-Monitor, “The court’s decision to postpone hearings for 10 weeks, until after the second round of presidential elections, is further proof that the trial is driven not by principles of rule of law, but cynical political calculations.”

Jeremiah concurred, saying, “We have been told repeatedly that ‘looking strong’ against the United States energizes Erdogan’s base. He needs that base to win this snap election.”

The government called snap presidential and parliamentary polls for June 24, more than 16 months ahead of their scheduled date of Nov. 3, 2019.

Erdemir said Brunson’s continued detention has “weakened the hands of Washington officials who would like to defuse tensions with Ankara and strike a modus vivendi.”

Erdemir added, “Erdogan’s deliberate move to escalate hostage diplomacy will likely trigger a perfect storm in US Turkish relations but only after the elections.” This is because “Washington officials will show restraint for now, so as not to become talking points in [Erdogan’s] anti-Western campaign.”

Nate Schenkkan, project director for Nations in Transit at Freedom House, an advocacy group in Washington, agreed that “no one wants a major crack-up.” But it may become inevitable if Brunson is not soon freed and it may be intentional on Erdogan’s part. Schenkkan told Al-Monitor, “Keeping a pastor in prison on these absurd charges — which become even more absurd the more we learn about them — is a signal to the US that Ankara is changing the relationship.”

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