Detained pastor case casting large shadow over Turkish-US ties

Complex criminal cases with political overtones makes the case of the American pastor Andrew Brunson more difficult to resolve than it might have been otherwise.

al-monitor Ismail Cem Halavurt, lawyer of the jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson, arrives at Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey, July 18, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Kemal Aslan.

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arms sales, fethullah gulen, terrorism, gulenists, christians, donald trump, recep tayyip erdogan

Jul 24, 2018

The recent refusal by a Turkish court to release Andrew Brunson, an American pastor imprisoned in Turkey since October 2016 on multiple terrorism charges, is casting yet another dark shadow over US-Turkish relations already marred by mutual resentment over a number of differences. The problem with the Brunson case involves its complicated political-legal backdrop and two radically different judicial systems. Also influencing thinking on the Brunson case are a number of additional US-Turkish legal entanglements concerning criminal cases with political overtones.

The indictment against Brunson accuses him of being a sympathizer of the Gulenist movement, headed by Fethullah Gulen, the self-exiled Turkish preacher living in Pennsylvania whom Ankara says masterminded the failed coup in July 2016. Turkey’s ongoing demand for Gulen’s extradition has emerged as the main political issue complicating the Brunson case. Brunson is also accused of being a sympathizer of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The prosecutor is seeking up to 35 years in prison for Brunson for espionage, under the guise of missionary work, aimed at overthrowing the elected government. Nevertheless, it was widely expected that Brunson, a Christian missionary from Black Mountain, North Carolina, who ran a small church in Izmir, on Turkey's Aegean coast, would be released after a July 18 hearing, pending a verdict against him.

The hearing followed a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Donald Trump during the recent NATO summit in Brussels, held July 11-12. This was followed up by a phone conversation between the two presidents that reportedly included discussion of Brunson's case.

Western diplomats in Ankara believed that Erdogan’s electoral victory in last month’s presidential elections had freed his hand to take an executive decision and resolve the Brunson case before it turned into a major problem in US-Turkish relations. It was assumed that the example of the journalist Deniz Yucel, a German citizen of Turkish origin unexpectedly released earlier this year after 12 months behind bars for allegedly supporting the PKK, would provide the template for the Brunson case.

Yucel's plight had become a major thorn in the side of Turkish-German relations, and many believe that this is why he was released. The court in Izmir, however, dashed such a scenario. Brunson will remain in prison until his next hearing, in October.

Washington insists Brunson is innocent and has demanded his immediate release. Trump, referring to the pastor on Twitter as a “hostage who has been held far too long,” labeled the court’s recent decision “a disgrace,” and said Erdogan “should do something to free this wonderful Christian husband and father.” Such language only increases the sense of defiance in Ankara, making Brunson’s situation even more intractable. Moves in Congress to punish Turkey with sanctions over a number of issues, including the Brunson case, haven’t helped either.

A bipartisan group of US senators introduced legislation last week aimed at restricting loans to Turkey by the World Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development until Ankara stops “arbitrarily detaining or denying freedom of movement to United States citizens (including dual citizens) or locally employed staff members of the United States mission to Turkey.” Turkey is holding a number of other US citizens in detention, as well as a Turkish employee from the US Consulate in Istanbul, who are accused of Gulenist links.

There is also a move in the Congress to withhold the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey until a new assessment by the Pentagon on Turkish-US relations in light of Ankara’s desire to purchase Russian S-400 anti-ballistic defense systems. A provision in the National Defense Authorization Act calls on Turkey to release Brunson and other US citizens.

Given the gravity of the charges against Brunson, and Washington’s refusal to meet Ankara’s demand on Gulen's extradition on the grounds of insufficient evidence, releasing Brunson under American pressure would represent a serious loss of face for Erdogan

Burhanettin Duran, general coordinator for the government-funded SETA think tank in Ankara, argues that the basic problem is the Americans' belief that the United States is disproportionately stronger than Turkey. In a column for the pro-government Sabah newspaper, Duran asserts that Washington demonstrates this in all of its negotiations with Turkey.

“It does not escape the notice of Turkish officials that while Washington insists on evading the question of Gulen, it continually brings up the Brunson issue,” Duran wrote. He added that Washington still fails to understand the Turkish public’s feelings about the Gulenists after the failed coup attempt.

“The feeling on the American side may be that Turkey is holding US citizens hostage, but the feeling in Turkey is that the US is feeding and protecting [Turkey’s] worst enemy,” according to Duran. A US delegation recently visited Ankara to discuss “legal matters,” including the Brunson and Gulen cases, but little headway was reported after the talks.

Western diplomats in Ankara, who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, see the Brunson case as an example of the kind of political decisions arrived at by a judiciary controlled by an executive branch, which in this case means Erdogan. Ankara counters by saying that the judiciary in Turkey is as independent as its US counterpart. It throws the ball back by citing the case of Mehmet Hakan Atilla, who headed the international banking division of the Turkish state-owned Halkbank, and was tried in New York for violating sanctions against Iran.

Atilla received a three-year sentence, while Halkbank is still waiting for the penalty against it to be announced by the US Treasury and the Department of Justice. Ankara insists that the case is a political one aimed at undermining Turkey and has referred to it as a “legal scandal.”

Turkish and US officials held talks July 19-20 in Ankara on the new round of US sanctions against Iran. Washington wants Ankara to comply with the sanctions, or face consequences, while Ankara says it is not bound by US sanctions that lack UN approval. The outcome of these talks, which remains in the balance, is expected to indirectly affect the Brunson case.

Meanwhile, the pressure from the United States on Turkey is agitating Erdogan’s grassroots supporters, who are calling on him not to cave in to Washington. Liberal commentators also oppose concessions in the face of US pressure.

“What exactly does Trump want Erdogan to do when he tells him he should do something?” Murat Yetkin, editor-in-chief of Hurriyet Daily News, wrote after Trump’s Twitter message. “Use his political influence over the court to get Brunson out? Would that be acceptable when millions of Turks want the courts to be free of any external influence? And, if so, does that mean Trump can ‘do something’ regarding the Turkish demands on Gulen?”

That said, Erdogan has already disappointed Turks who want the courts to be free of external meddling by proposing a “pastor for a pastor” deal with Washington last year, which remains his position today.

“We have given you all the documents necessary [for the extradition of Gulen]. But they say, ‘Give us the pastor.’ You have another pastor in your hands. Give us that pastor and we will do what we can in the judiciary to give you this one,” Erdogan told a group of police officers at his presidential palace Sept. 28.

Another complication is the absence of political equivalence between Gulen and Brunson. The stakes surrounding Gulen are much higher politically, although Brunson has the potential to fuel already increasing anti-Turkish lobbying in the United States by influential evangelical Christian groups.

It remains to be seen whether over the next three months Brunson turns into such a huge liability that Ankara is forced to find a political solution, clothed in legal jargon, to release him. All bets are off at this time, after the widespread assumption that Brunson would be released days ago proved to be misplaced.

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