Turkish Court Denies Release of Jailed American Pastor

Andrew Brunson has been in Turkish prison since fall 2016

Andrew Brunson / Youtube

A Turkish court on Wednesday rejected appeals from President Trump and other high-level U.S. officials to release Andrew Brunson, an American pastor of a small Protestant Christian church whose prosecution and imprisonment has exacerbated tensions between the United States and Turkey.

Trump, as well as Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have recently called for Brunson's release and have condemned Turkish authorities for imprisoning him on what they say are false terrorism and espionage charges.

Brunson, a 50-year-old Evangelical pastor from North Carolina, has been detained in Turkey since the fall of 2016 on charges of espionage and colluding with terrorist organizations, including Kurdish militants.

Advocates for Brunson were cautiously optimistic that Brunson would be set free Wednesday, but the Turkish court rules dashed those hopes with its decision to continue to hold him.

The ruling earned a swift rebuke from the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a U.S. government agency that advocates for persecuted religious minorities around the globe.

"The government of Turkey continues to make a mockery of justice in its treatment of Pastor Brunson," USCIRF Vice Chair Kristina Arriaga, who attended the court hearing in Turkey, said in a statement Wednesday. "Today, I was hoping to see the judge order his complete release and put an end to the miscarriage of justice that Pastor Brunson’s entire case represents."

Turkish authorities still have not provided a good reason for jailing Brunson, she said, pledging the Trump administration and Congress would continue to apply pressure, including "using targeted sanctions against officials connected to this case until Pastor Brunson is released."

Brunson, a U.S. citizen who had served as the pastor of a small Protestant congregation in Turkey for more than 22 years, was abruptly detained nearly two years ago in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt. He was charged with alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), as well as a network led by U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey blames for the unrest.

Brunson, who faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted, denies the charges.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D., Mo.) in June visited Brunson in jail and met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to press for his release. Congress also has introduced a number of sanctions, including visa restrictions, against Turkish officials responsible for Brunson's imprisonment.

As part of the defense authorization bill, the Senate in June passed language that would delay the planned sale of more than 100 F-35 fighter jets to Turkey and calls on the Defense department to come up with a plan to end Turkish participation in making the jets.

The measure also links those steps to Turkey's plans to buy an anti-aircraft missile system from Russia, as well as Brunson’s continued imprisonment. In order to become law, the bill would need House approval and Trump's signature.

Earlier this year, Trump tweeted that the charges against Brunson are nonsensical.

"They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is," Trump tweeted. The case was among issues Trump and Erdogan discussed earlier this month in a telephone call.

Erdogan, who has consolidated power in Turkey and now controls all branches of government, could order Brunson’s immediate release at any time. 

The 62-page Turkish court indictment charging Brunson is mainly based on anonymous sources. At one point, it accuses Brunson of associating with terrorists because his daughter sent him a photo of a Middle Eastern food dish the Turkish government says is a favorite of terrorists.

Philip Kosnett, the U.S. Embassy Charge d'Affaires in Turkey, said Wednesday he was disappointed by the court’s decision to continue to keep Brunson in jail.

"I have read the indictment. I have attended three hearings. I don't believe there is any indication that Pastor Brunson is guilty of any sort of criminal or terrorist activity," he said. "Our government remains deeply concerned about his status."