Trump urges Erdogan to free US pastor held in Turkey

President says ‘total disgrace’ Ankara refusing to release Andrew Brunson, imprisoned for nearly 2 years on terror charges

In this undated file photo, Andrew Brunson, an American pastor, on trial in Izmir, Turkey. (DHA-Depo Photos via AP)
In this undated file photo, Andrew Brunson, an American pastor, on trial in Izmir, Turkey. (DHA-Depo Photos via AP)

US President Donald Trump on Wednesday urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Twitter to free an American pastor held in Turkey for nearly two years on terror charges.

“A total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected US Pastor, Andrew Brunson, from prison. He has been held hostage far too long.

“@RT_Erdogan should do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father. He has done nothing wrong, and his family needs him!” Trump tweeted.

Just hours earlier a Turkish court ordered American pastor Andrew Brunson to remain in prison, defying growing pressure from the US authorities for his release.

The case of Brunson, who ran a Protestant church in the Aegean city of Izmir and was first detained in October 2016, has become a major sticking point in improving relations between Ankara and Washington.

This is the third time his release has been refused — the court had in both previous hearings on April 16 and May 7 denied requests by the defence for Brunson to be set free.

The judge said the next hearing would be on October 12.

‘No indication’

“We are disappointed in the result of today’s hearing,” said Philip Kosnett, the US charge d’affaires in Ankara who attended Wednesday’s session.

“I have read the indictment, I have attended three hearings I don’t believe there is any indication that pastor Brunson is guilty of any sort of criminal or terrorist activity,” he added.

Brunson faces up to 35 years in jail if convicted on charges of carrying out activities on behalf of two groups deemed by Turkey to be terror organizations — one led by US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen who Ankara says was behind the failed 2016 coup and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Brunson at the latest hearing again denied the charges, as two more witnesses were heard for the prosecution and two for the defense.

“I never supported the PKK,” he told the court. “None of the witnesses ever heard from me the slightest word of support for the PKK,” he added.

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, September 21, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Brunson’s lawyer Cem Halavurt said the case was being built around witness statements that were “without proof, just people who say ‘I heard this, I saw this.'”

“It’s an utter judicial shame,” he told reporters.

Growing problems

Trump has previously called for Brunson’s release, and he discussed the issue in a phone call with Erdogan earlier this week.

Turkish-US relations are already strained over American backing for a Kurdish militia in Syria which Turkey says is linked to the PKK and Washington’s refusal to extradite Gulen.

Two Turkish employees from American missions in Turkey are also behind bars — a US Istanbul consulate staffer charged with espionage and an employee at the US consulate in Adana charged with supporting the PKK.

Brunson is one of tens of thousands of people detained on similar charges during the state of emergency declared by Erdogan in the wake of the failed coup bid on July 15, 2016.

The two-year state of emergency is due to end overnight Wednesday to Thursday but this appears to have had no impact on the Brunson case.

US Charge d’affaires Philip Kosnett (C) speaks to media members after the trial of US Pastor Andrew Brunson who is datainined in Turkey for over a year on Terror charges, in Aliaga, north of Izmir, on July 18, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / OZAN KOSE)

Kosnett said the US remains deeply concerned about Brunson’s status “as well as the status of other American citizens and Turkish local employees of the US diplomatic mission who have been detained under state of emergency rule.”

He said the United States had “great respect” for Turkey’s legal traditions but “we believe that this case is out of step with these traditions”.

‘Fine gentleman’

Last September, Erdogan suggested that Turkey could free Brunson if Washington handed over Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania — an offer brushed off by Washington.

Despite the tensions, Erdogan and Trump maintain cordial personal relations, with US channel CBS reporting that the two “fist-bumped” at last week’s NATO summit in Brussels with the American president praising his Turkish counterpart for doing things “the right way”.

Minutes after the court’s decision was announced, the Turkish foreign ministry said Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu held telephone talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The content of the talks was not disclosed.

Trump in April had tweeted support for Brunson, saying the pastor was a “fine gentleman” who was on trial and being prosecuted for “no reason”.

“They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!” Trump said.

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