Hopes dashed for release of US pastor held in Turkey

Pastor Andrew Brunson, pictured in January.

Originally published in World Watch Monitor

Hopes were dashed for the imminent release of an American pastor jailed in Turkey on terrorism charges as a Turkish court today ordered him to remain behind bars.

The court scheduled Andrew Brunson’s next hearing for October 12.

Some observers had believed that Turkey might release Brunson, who has been detained for nearly two years. The pastor of a small church in Izmir, he is accused of having links with supporters of the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is blamed for the failed 2016 coup against President Erdogan, and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Brunson denies all the charges.

Brunson’s supporters disappointed at outcome
Today, the court heard testimony from four witnesses: three for the prosecution, and one for the defence. Brunson’s lawyer’s request for his first choice defence witness was bypassed, so another witness appeared. Brunson’s supporters were disappointed at today’s outcome, having been encouraged by recent talks at the diplomatic level.

As the Al-Monitor news website noted this week, Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Erdogan were “all smiles as they were photographed exchanging fist bumps” at last week’s NATO summit in Brussels. That meeting was followed by a 15-minute phonecall on Monday (July 16), during which Brunson’s case was discussed, according to the Turkish pro-government daily newspaper, Sabah.

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In April, Trump tweeted in support of Brunson, saying he was “being persecuted in Turkey for no reason”.

However, a former opposition member of the Turkish parliament told Al-Monitor that powerful forces are working against Brunson. Aykan Erdemir, now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Al-Monitor: “Both the pro-government media and the prosecutor’s office have dug themselves deep in framing Brunson as a terrorist, and it will be a challenge for them to pull a U-turn.”

He added that Erdogan’s nationalist allies “have a proven track record of anti-Christian and anti-missionary prejudice and would not welcome Brunson’s release.”

In late June, two US senators, Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, met President Erdoğan in Ankara after visiting Pastor Brunson in prison in Aliağa, Izmir. The pair called for the US to enact sanctions against Turkey over Brunson’s detention. According to Al-Monitor, the senators had “not minced their words” in their meeting with Erdogan, and believed he may not have been “properly briefed” about the seriousness of the sanctions, but he “now understood”.

Scathing appraisal of proceedings
After Brunson’s previous hearing, in Aliaga in May, Sandra Jolley, Vice Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, released a scathing appraisal of the way the proceedings were carried out. After attending the 11-hour session, during which the judge dismissed all of Brunson’s witnesses, she said in a statement:

“We leave the courthouse with serious concerns. Today’s 11 hours of proceedings were dominated by wild conspiracies, tortured logic, and secret witnesses, but no real evidence to speak of. Upon these rests a man’s life.

“Worse still, the judge’s decision at the conclusion of today’s hearing to dismiss all of the witnesses called by Pastor Brunson’s defence without listening to a single minute of their testimony is simply unconscionable.”

The pastor and his Turkish lawyer finally learned the specific allegations on which his charges of alleged espionage and terrorism are based, most of them from “secret witnesses”, only a month or so before his first court hearing. The prosecution has demanded 35 years in prison if Brunson is convicted of these charges, all of which he denied in a six-hour defence before Izmir’s Second Criminal Court at his hearing on April 16.

Bill Campbell, Pastor of Hendersonville (NC) Presbyterian Church, attended the hearing in Aliaga, Turkey.

“As usual, there was much spurious testimony against Andrew,” Campbell said via encrypted text message following adjournment of the proceedings. “Andrew’s testimony was absolutely powerful. He presented the gospel with confidence and defended himself with boldness. The court allowed for the first time a favourable witness, and one who was to speak against him actually spoke in Andrew’s favour. It felt like they had decided the outcome before the trial.”

Andrew Brunson timeline
1993 – present

US Protestant pastor Andrew Brunson involved in legally recognised church-related Christian ministry in Turkey.


July 15 — Deadly military coup attempt against Turkish government fails; Ankara blames network of US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen for coup, seeks Gulen’s extradition from US.

July 20 — Turkish President declares state of emergency (still in force), suspending certain judicial practices; 110 000 public officials dismissed, 35 000 Gulen suspects under arrest, awaiting trial.

October 7 — Brunson detained with wife Norine, in Alsancak police station, Izmir; told he would be deported within 15 days as “threat to national security”.

October 19 — Norine Brunson released from police detention.

October 20 — Andrew Brunson moved to Harmandali Detention Centre (outskirts of Izmir), placed in solitary confinement.

December 9 — Summoned (with lawyer) to closed hearing at Izmir 2nd Criminal Court. Charges changed to “membership in an [unnamed] armed terrorist organisation”. Placed under formal arrest in overcrowded group cell at Aliaga Sakran Prison (45 miles from Izmir).

December 20 — US Senator James Lankford meets Turkish Justice Ministry officials in Ankara, the capital.

December 29 — Izmir court rejects lawyer’s appeal to release Brunson.


January 3 — Unnamed senior Turkish official to Wall Street Journal says claim that Brunson’s arrest related to his religious affiliation is “ludicrous”.

February 15 — 78 US Congress members write to Turkish President Erdogan, urging him to release Brunson.

March 9 — Turkish Prime Minister Yildirim tells USA Today it’s a “nonsensical” idea that Brunson held hostage until Turkish cleric Gulen’s extradition from US; says pastor’s case could be “accelerated”.

March 28 — Brunson sends appeal letter to US President Trump.

March 30 — US Secretary of State Tillerson meets Norine Brunson in Ankara.

May 15 — American Centre for Law & Justice files petition to UN Human Rights Council for Brunson’s release.

May 16 — Trump asks Erdogan in person during Washington DC visit to release Brunson.

Late May-June — Flurry of Turkish media allegations against Brunson link him with Gulen movement, armed PKK separatists, CIA, “missionary” activities.

May 30 — Erdogan promises “retaliation” vs countries holding Gulen movement suspects.

July 7 — Washington Post reports Turkey’s swap offer to exchange Brunson for release of millionaire Turkish-Iranian prisoner Reza Zarrab, facing trial in New York for evading US-led Iran sanctions.

July 17 — Brunson moved to shared cell in Kiriklar Maximum Security Prison in Izmir’s Buca district.

July 24 — New charges of “espionage and insurgency” against Brunson reported in Turkish press.

August 24 — Izmir judge initiates video conference call with Brunson and his lawyer; pastor informed his official criminal charges are “spying and insurgency”.

August 25 — New “state of emergency” Executive Order No. 694 authorises Erdogan to arrange to swap Turkish citizen prisoners for foreigners jailed in Turkey.

September 28 — Erdogan publicly declares swap offer of Brunson for Gulen’s extradition.

October 5 — Two representatives of US Commission for International Religious Freedom visit Brunson at Kiriklar Prison.

November 15 — Brunson’s daughter Jacqueline addresses US Helsinki Commission hearing, Washington DC.


January 3 — Brunson’s 50th birthday.

January 11 — Erdogan vows no extraditions to US until Gulen returned from US to Turkey.

January 23 — US delegation visiting Ankara raises Brunson’s “wrongful detention”.

Click to join movement

March 9 — Jacqueline Brunson addresses UN Human Rights Commission, Geneva.

March 13 — Written indictment against Brunson leaked to Turkish press.

March 16 — Indictment accepted by Izmir 2nd Criminal Court; first trial date set for April 17.

March 26 — Brunson’s North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis visits him at Kiriklar Prison.

April 17 — First trial hearing: Brunson denies all charges, three prosecution witnesses testify; observed by US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback and Senator Thom Tillis.`

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