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Jailed US pastor goes on trial in Turkey

Evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson has spent a year and a half in Turkish prison [AFP]

Date of publication: 16 April, 2018

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The trial of evangelical US pastor Andrew Brunson, detained in Turkey over Gulen-related 'terrorism' charges, began on Monday, signalling a potential thaw in frosty Ankara-Washington relations.
An American pastor went on trial on Monday in Turkey after spending the past year and a half behind bars on terrorism charges, in a case that has heightened tensions between Ankara and Washington.

Andrew Brunson, a Christian missionary who ran a protestant church in the western city of Izmir, was detained by Turkish authorities in October 2016 as part of the sweeping crackdown following the failed coup attempt three months earlier, and then remanded in custody. If convicted, he faces up to 35 years in jail.

Brunson, wearing a white shirt and a black suit, was present in court in the town of Aliaga north of Izmir for the hearing, according to an AFP correspondent.

In an indication of the importance of the case for Washington, also in court were Sam Brownback, the US ambassador at large for religious freedoms, and Senator Thom Tillis.

Turkish prosecutors have charged Brunson with engaging in activities on behalf of the group led by US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara claims is behind the failed 2016 coup, and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Both are banned by Turkey as terror groups. Brunson is also accused of espionage for political or military purposes.

If convicted, he faces two separate terms of 15 years and 20 years in prison, his lawyer Cem Halavurt told AFP.

He is both nervous but also excited because it is the first time he will appear before a judge. He has expectations and a hope

However the charges appear lighter than those outlined in the original indictment published on March 13, in which Brunson was accused of being a member of Gulen's group and risked life imprisonment if convicted.

The latest indictment explicitly states he is not charged with being a member of Gulen's group or the PKK.

"He is both nervous but also excited because it is the first time he will appear before a judge. He has expectations and a hope," Halavurt told AFP ahead of the hearing.

'Give us the pastor'

The Brunson case has further strained tense relations between NATO allies Turkey and the United States, with US President Donald Trump raising the issue in talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the past year and a half.

Tensions have been simmering between the two powers due to American backing for the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria against whom Ankara have been waging a brutal offensive, as well as the jailing of two employees at American missions in Turkey.

Gulen, who lives in self-exile in the US state of Pennsylvania, firmly denies any role in the failed coup and says his Hizmet (Service) movement promotes a peaceful form of Islam.

Turkey has sent a spate of documents to back up its repeated request for Gulen's extradition from the United States, which has so far shown no sign of interest in expelling the preacher. 

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

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 strongman's visit to Washington last year.

Two supporters of Erdogan jailed in the same case are due to be freed in the next weeks after a plea deal.

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

"There is no use in pushing this case on political grounds. There is a victim and we must first of all assure his right to freedom and security," said Halavurt.

Evangelical pastor Brunson was initially detained along with his wife Norine although she was released in December 2016. Norine was also present in court for the hearing.

"Please pray that... the cord around Andrew would be loosened/untied," Norine wrote on a Facebook page devoted to her husband's case ahead of the trial.

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