U.S. Pastor Defends Himself Against Coup Charges in Turkey

(Bloomberg) -- American pastor Andrew Craig Brunson took to the stand in a converted basketball court in the Turkish city of Izmir on Monday to defend himself against claims he had a role in a 2016 coup attempt and was working with Kurds to establish a breakaway Christian state.

A series of secret witnesses, addressing the court via a blurred video conference to protect their identities, made charges against the pastor that ranged from cooperation with Kurdish terrorists to colluding with the Fethullah Gulen Islamic movement that Turkey blames for the attempted putsch. Brunson, who denies all allegations and could face up to 35 years in prison, patiently answered the charges in fluent Turkish, rarely using a translator. At one point he broke into tears as he made eye contact with his wife.

The outcome of the hearing will impact relations between the U.S. and Turkey, which have the two largest armies in NATO and were traditionally close allies until ties deteriorated markedly in recent years. A bipartisan group of 66 U.S. senators in April sent a letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asking for Brunson’s release and warning of counter-measures including “targeted sanctions” should his imprisonment be extended.

“The American public and Congress have been very patient,” said Sandra Jolley, vice chair of the U.S. government Commission on International Religious Freedom, who attended the trial on Monday as an observer. “Every day that Andrew Brunson spends here imprisoned is a day when the standing of the Turkish government diminishes in the eyes of not just the U.S. but the entire world.”

Emergency Rule

Brunson, 50, was jailed shortly after the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. He’s accused of colluding with a hodgepodge of militant and religious groups espousing contradictory ideologies, including followers of Gulen and members of the PKK, a militant Kurdish group that both Turkey and the U.S. consider a terrorist organization.

He’s charged with membership in an armed terrorist organization, and attempting to stir chaos and inciting hatred based on religious and ethnic differences. The indictment also alleges he regularly met with Christians in the Turkish army who’d spent time in the U.S. and later played key roles in the coup.

Brunson is one of more than 150,000 people detained, jailed or fired in the aftermath of the coup attempt. He has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years, and preaches at a small evangelical Presbyterian church called Izmir Dirilis. Turkey remains under emergency rule imposed just after the attempted overthrow was suppressed.

Mental Strain

In the last hearing on April 17, Brunson broke into tears and said he’d suffered a breakdown in prison and was taking psychiatric medication.

The imprisonment adds to a number of disputes between the U.S. and Turkey that have left relations at an historic low point. The two countries have faced off over Ankara’s demand to extradite Gulen from his home in Pennsylvania, where he has lived for two decades.

“Give a pastor, take a pastor,” Erdogan said last September, referring to Gulen and Brunson.

American backing for separatist Syrian Kurds that the Turkish government considers an extension of the PKK, Turkey’s arrest of U.S. consular employees, Turkey’s intended purchase of S-400 missile systems from Russia, and the conviction in New York of a Turkish state banker for Iranian sanctions evasion have added to the hostility.

The trial on Monday was attended by Jolley and U.S. Charges d’Affairs Philip Kosnett. The U.S. hasn’t named a new ambassador to Turkey since Ambassador John Bass left last year for an appointment in Afghanistan.

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