Aliaga (Turkey) (AFP) – The trial of an American pastor that has strained relations between Turkey and the US resumed on Monday, with the defendant again rejecting charges of links to terror groups.
Andrew Brunson, head of a small Protestant church in the western city of Izmir, faces up to 35 years in jail if he is convicted. He has been held in detention since October 2016.
Turkish prosecutors accuse Brunson of activities on behalf of the group led by US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen — who Ankara says was behind the failed 2016 coup — and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Both the Gulen movement and the PKK are banned by Turkey as terror groups.
Brunson, who has lived and worked in Turkey for over two decades, is also accused of espionage for political or military purposes.
At Monday’s second hearing in the trial which got underway on April 16, Brunson vehemently contested testimony from a witness who suggested his church had been an intermediary for the PKK and a place where PKK insignia were displayed.
“I reject all the allegations about the PKK terror organisation. I have never supported them,” said Brunson, wearing a black suit and white shirt.
“He claims PKK propaganda are being made in our Resurrection Church. Where are those pictures?” he told the court in the town of Aliaga north of Izmir.
The witness, whose name was given only as Serhat, said he was a Christian who regularly attended services. He appeared by video link with his face blurred.
– ‘Is it up to me?’ –
In a sign of the importance of the case to Washington, US embassy charge d’affaires Philip Kosnett as well as Sandra Jolley, vice chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, were present at Monday’s hearing.
US President Donald Trump tweeted last month the pastor was “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.
But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who will meet with US counterpart Mike Pompeo in Washington in the coming days, said Brunson’s case was solely in the hands of the judiciary.
“They say ‘the government should release him’. Is it up to me?” Cavusoglu told the private CNN Turk broadcaster on Sunday.
Turkish-US relations are already strained over American backing for a Kurdish militia in Syria which Turkey says is linked to the PKK, as well as the jailing of two employees from American missions in Turkey.
In September, President Recep Tayyip 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.
Brunson is one of several American nationals caught up in the crackdown after the failed coup.
In February, NASA scientist Serkan Golge, a dual national, was jailed for seven-and-a-half years for being a member of Gulen’s movement in a conviction denounced by Washington.