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Turkey Resists Pressure to Release American Pastor from Jail
SAKRAN, Turkey — A Turkish court on Wednesday ordered an American pastor accused of espionage to remain incarcerated, ignoring pleas for his release from his lawyer and the United States government.
In a sign that tensions between Turkey and the United States have not eased, the court ordered the pastor, Andrew Brunson, to stay in jail until his next hearing, in October. By then, he will have been detained for two years.
Mr. Brunson, who has done missionary work in Turkey for the past 23 years, is on trial on charges of terrorism and espionage — one of 20 American citizens who have been prosecuted under a government crackdown since a failed coup in 2016.
The White House and members of Congress have raised Mr. Brunson’s case personally with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, including most recently in a phone call by President Trump. American officials had hoped the pastor’s release would signal an improvement in the fraught relations between the countries.
In a sign of the level of American interest in the case, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey in a phone call immediately after the proceedings ended Wednesday in a court in Sakran, near the western city of Izmir.
“We are disappointed in the results of today’s hearing,” Philip Kosnett, chargé d’affaires and head of mission at the United States Embassy in Turkey, said outside court after the hearing. “I have read the indictment, attended three hearings. I don’t believe that there is any indication that Pastor Brunson is guilty of any sort of criminal or terrorist activity.”
Mr. Brunson, wearing a dark suit and open-necked shirt, shrugged and waved to his wife, Norine, and supporters. He thanked them as he was led away by uniformed prison guards.
Mr. Brunson faces up to 35 years in prison if found guilty of having links to two designated terrorist organizations. One is a movement led by the American-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accuses of instigating the 2016 failed coup, and the other is the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the P.K.K.
Mr. Brunson has denied any links to terrorist organizations, and in his own defense on Wednesday he said he eschewed all politics in his work.
Witnesses for the prosecution, including two secret witnesses who have testified by video to conceal their identity, have accused Mr. Brunson of hosting Kurdish refugees in a guesthouse and holding services and gatherings sympathetic to the P.K.K.
His accusers claim that he provided Bibles in Kurdish bearing the P.K.K. symbol and that he provided cover for fighters to join Kurdish units in Syria under the guise of his humanitarian work.
One witness in a previous hearing said he had heard from a diplomat that Mr. Brunson also was providing the coordinates of Kurdish guerrilla units in Syria so the United States could deliver them weapons.
Mr. Brunson and American officials have rejected all the claims.
“There is not a single concrete piece of evidence that connects me to the P.K.K.,” he told the court. “None of the witnesses heard from my mouth a word that was sympathetic with the P.K.K.”
He emphasized that he had run a program for Syrian refugees, not for Kurds, and that the members of his church, the Resurrection Church in Izmir, were predominantly Turkish.
“I forgive those who lied against me,” he said. “I forgive those who do injustice against me.”
Diplomats have suggested that Turkey is holding Mr. Brunson, along with several dozen American and European citizens, as political hostages to use as leverage in negotiations.
Mr. Erdogan has repeatedly requested the extradition of Mr. Gulen from the United States, and has suggested that he would hand over Mr. Brunson when Mr. Gulen, who lives on a guarded estate in Pennsylvania, is sent to Turkey. Mahir Unal, spokesman for Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, linked the two cases again in comments on Wednesday.
Twenty American citizens have been prosecuted under the state of emergency since the failed coup, most of them Turkish-American dual citizens accused of links with Mr. Gulen’s movement. Five remain incarcerated, while the rest have been released while their cases are pending appeal. Mr. Brunson is the only one who has yet to be sentenced.
Among those convicted are the NASA scientist Serkan Golge who is appealing a conviction of 10 years for being associated with Mr. Gulen.
Arrested when on holiday in Turkey in 2016, Mr. Golge has denied all connection with the organization. The only evidence presented at his trial was a single dollar bill found in his parent’s home and a denouncement by a relative that was later retracted.
Another American couple in Izmir was sentenced to nine years and nine months over supposed links to Mr. Gulen after the private university where they worked was closed down. Over 100 members of the staff of the university have been prosecuted on terrorism charges.
After the hearing on Wednesday, Kristina Arriaga, vice chairwoman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, who has visited Mr. Brunson in jail, called on the American government and Congress to impose sanctions against Turkish officials connected to his case.
“The government of Turkey continues to make a mockery of justice in its treatment of Pastor Brunson,” she said in a statement. “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 case represents.”
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