US senators apply to attend trial in Turkey of jailed pastor Brunson

American Pastor Andrew Brunson.

A number of US senators have applied to Turkey’s Justice Ministry to attend the first hearing next week in the trial of Andrew Brunson, a US pastor held in jail in Turkey for 16 months and who faces 35 years in prison for allegedly perpetrating crimes in the name of the Gülen movement and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), according to a report by the pro-government Habertürk daily on Tuesday

The case of the jailed pastor is one of a growing list of issues between the United States and its NATO ally Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in September that Turkey would exchange Brunson for US-based Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen.

In the indictment the prosecutor demands up to 15 years in prison for Brunson for perpetrating crimes in the name of the Gülen movement and the outlawed PKK despite not being member of either, and up to 20 years for obtaining state secrets for political or military espionage.

Habertürk did not say how many US senators had applied to attend the hearing on April 16, but one of them was reported to be a former classmate of Brunson.

The US State Department has called for Turkey to release Brunson, and  37 US senators and 78 members of Congress signed a letter to Erdoğan asking for his unconditional release in February 2018. In September 2016 Turkish authorities ordered that Brunson be deported from the Aegean city of İzmir, where he had been living for two decades, citing “activities threatening national security.”

But before the deportation was carried out, an anonymous witness testified in another case that Brunson had carried out missionary activities across Turkey and had contacted the Gülen movement. Brunson was then arrested on charges of membership in the Gülen movement on Dec. 9, 2016.

According to The Wall Street Journal’s Dion Nissenbaum, the former WSJ reporter in Turkey, Brunson’s case has made him a cause célèbre among Christian activists, and he is being represented by the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, whose chief counsel is one of Trump’s personal lawyers, Jay Sekulow.

The Trump administration has also been pressing US lawmakers to prevent the implementation of a measure that would bar Turkish officials linked to Brunson’s detention from entering the United States, said the WSJ. According to The Journal, prosecutors filed a 62-page indictment accusing Brunson of espionage and working to convert Muslims to Christianity.

Turkey survived a controversial military coup attempton July 15, 2016 that killed 249 people. Immediately after the putsch, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government along with President Erdoğan pinned the blame on the Gülen movement.

Fethullah Gülen, who inspired the movement, strongly denied having any role in the failed coup and called for an international investigation into it, but President Erdoğan — calling the coup attempt “a gift from God” — and the government initiated a widespread purge aimed at cleansing sympathizers of the movement from within state institutions, dehumanizing its popular figures and putting them in custody.

Turkey has suspended or dismissed more than 150,000 judges, teachers, police and other civil servants since July 2016. Turkey’s interior minister announced on December 12, 2017 that 55,665 people have been arrested. On December 13, the Justice Ministry announced that 169,013 people have been the subject of legal proceedings on coup charges since the failed coup.

A total of 48,305 people were arrested by courts across Turkey in 2017 over their alleged links to the Gülen movement, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said on Dec. 2, 2017. “The number of detentions is nearly three times higher,” Soylu told a security meeting in İstanbul and claimed that “even these figures are not enough to reveal the severity of the issue.” (SCF with Ahval)

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