A Turkish court, to the dismay of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, on Wednesday ruled against releasing Andrew Brunson, an American pastor imprisoned on terrorism and spying charges pending trial.
In a crackdown launched in the wake of the failed coup in July 2016, Turkish authorities arrested Brunson in October of that year while he was serving a small Protestant congregation in Turkey’s third largest city of Izmir, located in the province of the same name where he is now facing trial.
The former pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church, who denied the charges, is facing up to 35 years in jail if found guilty.
U.S. President Donald Trump has urged America’s NATO ally Turkey to release the American pastor, to no avail.
The July 18 decision marks the third time the Turkish court refuses to liberate Brunson, the Agence France-Presse (AFP) agency notes.
“President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has previously linked his fate to that of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based Muslim cleric Turkey blames for the coup attempt and whose extradition Ankara seeks,” Reuters reports, adding:
The Second High Penal Court in [the Aegean province of] İzmir decided to continue listening to the testimonies of witnesses in the next hearing on Oct. 12.
Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was indicted on charges of having links with the Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ) that Ankara blames for the failed 2016 coup attempt, as well the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The continued imprisonment, and Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air defense system, prompted the Republican-led U.S. Senate to approve a bill last month that would ban Ankara from purchasing F-35 Joint Strike Fighter warplanes.
Before the start of the July 18 hearing, Philip Kosnett, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Turkey, told reporters outside the courtroom that Brunson’s release is essential for the United States, adding that the case may impact America’s relationship with Turkey, according to Reuters.
“The sooner Andrew Brunson can be reunited with his family the sooner we can start focusing on other issues in the relationship,” Kosnett declared.
According to Hurriyet Daily News, Kosnett expressed displeasure towards the Turkish court’s decision to keep Brunson behind bars, proclaiming in a statement issued after the hearing:
I’ve read the indictment, I’ve attended three hearings. I don’t believe that there is any indication that Pastor Brunson is guilty of any sort of criminal or terrorist activity. Our government remains deeply concerned about his status, as well as the status of other American citizens and Turkish local employees of the U.S. diplomatic mission who have been detained under state of emergency rules.
We have great respect both for Turkey’s traditional law as a haven for people of all faiths and for Turkey’s legal traditions. And we believe that this case is out of step with those traditions.
Brunson’s defense lawyer İsmail Cem Halavurt reportedly believed his client would be released on Wednesday when he expected the court to conclude the process of collecting evidence.
“We have been saying that he must be released under the law since day one,” Halavurt declared, adding, “We expect him to be released following the completion of the evidence collection.”
In recent years, the U.S.-Turkey relationship has soured over America’s ongoing support for Syrian Kurds affiliated to the terrorist PKK by Ankara.
Brunson’s trial has further fueled tensions between Turkey and the United States.
Early this year, the U.S. State Department International Religious Freedom Report acknowledged that discrimination against Christians and other religious minorities intensified in Turkey following the 2016 failed coup attempt.
Erdogan considers Christians “enemies of the state,” Dr. Y. Alp Aslandogan, the executive director of the Alliance for Shared Values, a non-profit group that promotes bringing people from different backgrounds together, told Breitbart News in March, echoing State.
While campaigning for president, President Trump vowed to defend persecuted Christians in the Middle East and beyond.
Iraqi Christians who survived a genocide campaign at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) recently thanked the Trump administration for its ongoing help.