Aliaga (Turkey) (AFP) – A US pastor denied spying and terrorism charges Monday in a case that has strained ties between Ankara and Washington, as a Turkish court ruled to keep him in detention and set a new hearing in July.
Andrew Brunson, head of a small Protestant church in the western city of Izmir, faces up to 35 years in jail if convicted. He has been in detention since October 2016.
Turkish prosecutors accuse Brunson of links to a group led by US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen — who Ankara says was behind a 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.
When the prosecutor said Brunson should remain in jail, the pastor tearfully told the court: “What more should I say? I want to return to my home!”
The judge agreed with the prosecution’s view and set the next trial hearing on July 18.
– ‘I reject all PKK allegations’ –
At Monday’s second hearing in the trial, which got underway on April 16, Brunson denied allegations made by a secret witness, named only as Serhat.
The witness, who said he was Christian and appeared via video link with his face blurred, suggested Brunson’s church had been an intermediary for the PKK and a place where PKK insignia were displayed.
He also alleged that Brunson had forged “a plan to establish a Christian Kurdish state in Iraq and Syria.”
Brunson, wearing a black suit and white shirt, said: “I reject all the allegations about the PKK terror organisation. I have never supported them.
“He claims PKK propaganda is being made in our Resurrection Church. Where are those pictures?” he told the court in the town of Aliaga north of Izmir.
Another witness, Eyup Cakir, claimed Brunson’s church resembled a “Kurdish camp” and there had been regular prayers for Kurdish fighters in Syria.
“If we were PKK sympathisers there would be no Turks attending our church,” Brunson said.
– ‘Wild conspiracies’ –
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.
Jolley told reporters she was seriously concerned by the “wild conspiracies, tortured logic, secret witnesses but no evidence.
“Where is the evidence? Where the proof, investigation, the documentation?” she asked.
“Upon this rests a man’s life… We leave here with grave reservations about the future of an innocent man.”
US President Donald Trump tweeted last month the pastor was “fine gentleman” who was on trial and being prosecuted for “no reason”.
But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who will meet US counterpart Mike Pompeo in Washington in the coming days, said Brunson’s case was solely in the hands of the judiciary.
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.