Turkish court orders US pastor to remain in prison

Turkish court orders US pastor to remain in prison
Andrew Brunson's trial has further strained tense relations between NATO allies Turkey and the United States.
3 min read
18 July, 2018
Turkish soldiers stand guard at Aliaga court during the trial of Andrew Brunson [Getty]

A Turkish court on Wednesday ordered an American pastor held for almost two years on terror charges to remain in prison, defying growing pressure from the US authorities for his release.

The judge said the next hearing in the case of Andrew Brunson, who ran a protestant church in the Aegean city of Izmir and was first detained in October 2016, would be on October 12, an AFP correspondent reported.

He stands accused of helping the group that Ankara blames for the failed 2016 coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well as supporting outlawed PKK Kurdish militants - charges he strongly denies. If convicted, Brunson faces up to 35 years in jail. 

Prosecution witnesses were set to finish testifying in the case on Wednesday. Turkish courts can detain defendants while evidence is collected to avoid inteference, meaning there was a chance Brunson would be freed when that process is concluded, his lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt said earlier on Wednesday.

"We have been saying that he must be released under the law since day one," Halavurt said.

Brunson has lived and worked in Turkey for more than two decades. His trial has further strained tense relations between NATO allies Turkey and the United States, with President Donald Trump raising the issue in talks with Erdogan over the past year and a half. In April, Trump tweeted in support of the pastor, saying he was "more a spy" than Brunson. 

On the first day of his trial in April, Brunson, speaking in fluent Turkish, rejected all charges laid against him. "I am a Christian. I would not join an Islamic movement," he said, referring to the Gulenists Turkish authorities say he is tied to.

Both the Gulen movement and the PKK are banned by Turkey as terror groups.

In September last year, Erdogan suggested that Turkey could free Brunson if Washington handed over Gulen, raising the idea of a swap deal. 

"They say 'give us the pastor'. You have a preacher (Gulen) there. Give him to us, and we will try (Brunson) and give him back," Erdogan said then. The idea was brushed off by the United States.

But Washington has been working intensely to secure the release of Brunson, one of several American nationals caught up in the crackdown after the failed coup.

The US authorities in November and February quietly dropped all charges against 11 bodyguards of Erdogan accused of attacking protesters during the Turkish leader's visit to Washington last year.

Yet Washington has always rejected the notion of any kind of bargaining over Brunson.

The NATO allies are also at odds over US policy in Syria, where Washington's ally in the fight against Islamic State is a Kurdish militia Turkey says is an extension of the outlawed PKK.

Hints of possible rapprochement have appeared, however, with an agreement for Turkish and US military patrols around the northern Syrian town of Manbij. The State Department said on Monday it was working with Turkey on the possible sale of a Raytheon Co Patriot missile defence system.