Turkey Keeps U.S. Pastor Jailed in Case Straining U.S. Ties

(Bloomberg) -- A Turkish court refused to free a jailed American pastor to house arrest, in a case that has strained already troubled ties with Washington.

Pastor Andrew Brunson was imprisoned in Turkey shortly after the July 2016 coup attempt on charges of collaborating with Turkey’s foes and attempting to stir chaos by inciting hatred based on religious and ethnic differences. American officials including President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have demanded his release.

“The entire U.S. government is following Mr. Brunson’s case closely,” the State Department said in a statement on Tuesday. “We have seen no credible evidence that Mr. Brunson is guilty of a crime and are convinced that he is innocent,” it added, urging Turkey to resolve his case in a timely, fair, and transparent manner.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government agency, called for sanctions against Turkey.

“We are deeply disappointed,” commission chairman Daniel Mark said in an emailed statement. Brunson’s continued imprisonment is yet another reason “for Congress and the administration to consider stronger steps against Turkey, including the imposition of targeted sanctions against those involved in this miscarriage of justice,” Mark said.

Brunson is accused of aiding two of Ankara’s archenemies: U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government accuses of masterminding the botched putsch, and the autonomy-seeking Kurdish PKK group, branded a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Turkey. He says he is innocent of any wrongdoing.

The pastor appealed to the court to release him while his trial proceeds, saying he had suffered a breakdown and was taking psychiatric medication, according to Hurriyet newspaper. If convicted, he could face a maximum of 35 years in prison, state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

The opening day of his trial coincided with the sentencing hearing in the U.S. of Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, whose trial and conviction is among a series of disputes fraying ties between Washington and Ankara. Atilla was convicted in January of helping Iran to evade U.S. sanctions on billions of dollars in oil revenue, and the U.S. Probation Department has recommended a 105-year sentence.

The U.S. and Turkey have also faced off over Ankara’s demand to extradite Gulen from his home in Pennsylvania, where he has lived for two decades; American backing for separatist Syrian Kurds whom the Turkish government considers an extension of the PKK; and Turkey’s arrest of U.S. consular employees.

Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Brunson’s home state, and Samuel Dale Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom at the State Department, attended the opening hearing against Brunson in the Aegean port town of Aliaga to emphasize the U.S. interest in the case.

Brownback urged the pastor’s quick release, according a transcript of his remarks by the Associated Press Television.

The incarceration of an innocent man “is an impediment for our relationship moving forward,” Brownback said. “You’ll continue to see a very high-level U.S. government interest in this, until he is released.”

The pastor -- who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, according to the commission -- was indicted in March on terrorism and espionage-related charges. He was also accused of proselytizing in predominantly Muslim Turkey and acting like a member of a guerrilla group under the guise of an evangelical church pastor.

Brunson rejected the allegations during Monday’s hearing, and burst into tears, according to Hurriyet.

“I do not accept the charges mentioned in the indictment. I have never been involved in any illegal activities,” Brunson, wearing a white shirt and black suit, told the court in Turkish, Hurriyet reported.

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