Pastor Brunson freed from prison, permitted to leave Turkey
World Watch Monitor

World Watch Monitor

Andrew and Norine Brunson in their Alsancak home in Izmir, Turkey, on 12 October, 2018, moments before they were escorted to the airport by US Embassy officials to fly back to the United States. Photo/World Watch Monitor

Andrew Brunson, the American-born pastor who was charged with espionage against Turkey and held in custody for two years, has been released and is free to leave the country.

A Turkish court on Friday, 12 October, convicted the Evangelical Presbyterian pastor on terrorism and espionage charges related to the failed 2016 coup against Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The court sentenced Brunson to more than three years of prison time, but released him on account of Brunson’s time already served in detention and good behavior.

Facing up to 35 years in prison if convicted, Brunson flatly denied all charges. After being held in a number of different detention facilities since his arrest in October 2016, Brunson, 50, was assigned to house arrest in July of this year.

Turkey’s major English-language news service, Hurriyet, reported that during Friday’s court hearing, important prosecution witnesses recanted some of their testimony against Brunson, weakening the government’s case against him. The hearing, held in a prison complex in Izmir, lasted nearly six hours. The court’s ruling at 4:28 p.m. ended Brunson’s ordeal.

After the presiding judge read the verdict aloud in court, and asked Brunson if he had a response, the pastor said, in Turkish: “I am an innocent man. I love Jesus, and I love Turkey.”

He was whisked away from the court and returned to his home in Izmir, on Turkey’s western coast with the Agean Sea. At about 9 p.m. local time he and his wife, Norine, departed for the airport, accompanied by American Embassy officials, for a flight to the United States.

Debi Forester, communications director of Brunson’s hometown church in the U.S. state of North Carolina, said church members were “all just shouting ‘Hallelujah!’ and doing the happy dance” on the news of his release, according to the Associated Press.

Rev. Richard White of Christ Community Church has been with the Brunson family in Turkey for the past couple of days, the AP reported. The church plans a celebration some time after his return.

The prosecution of Brunson was a sore spot between Ankara and Washington, triggering US sanctions and tariffs against Turkey and heated exchanges between Erdoğan and US President Donald Trump.

The president immediately celebrated Brunson’s release via Twitter:

The Washington Post reported 12 October that Brunson’s final hearing was held hours after the United States and Turkey had agreed to a deal that would ensure his release. Citing U.S. officials it did not identify, the Post said negotiations began during the U.N. General Assembly in September. The Post reported that the U.S. offered to reduce sanctions if Turkey would reduce charges enough to permit the courts to release him with allowance for time already served. Inside the Turkish courtroom, the prosecutors who originally had demanded a 35-year sentence reduced their request to 10 years.

Prosecutors originally had swept up Brunson amid a widespread crackdown following the attempted 2016 coup. He was accused of conspiring with Kurdish separatists, whom the Turkish government considers to be terrorists, and with colluding with a Muslim cleric, living in Pennsylvania, whom Erdoğan has accused of orchestrating the attempted overthrow. Brunson, who has lived in Turkey and led a small congregation since 1993, steadfastly denied any involvement and professed his love for the country.

Brunson had first been put behind bars, without formal charges, on 7 October, 2016. Scores of headlines had appeared in the Turkish media, calling him everything from a “terrorist” priest to a CIA spy, but the legal file against him was sealed, even against his Turkish lawyer.

Only when his indictment was finally released, six weeks before his trial, had Brunson learned he was being charged formally with terrorism and espionage, calling for combined prison terms of 35 years. The indictment leveled three charges:

  • Engaging in missionary activities under the “cover” of humanitarian aid to Syrian asylum seekers arriving in Turkey. Missionary work is technically legal in Turkey, but often regarded as a threat to national unity.
  • Relations and ministry with Kurds “known” to have high connections within the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organisation (FETO)
  • Activities aimed at destabilising Turkey, carried out in support of the criminal FETO network

The prosecution’s case, often provided by witnesses who were permitted to remain anonymous, presented a tangle of suspcions that baffled Brunson and his lawyers.

A large section of the indictment included testimony of an unidentified witness who claimed that US citizens, working as missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Turkey, were colluding with the FETO movement and supporting the PKK by trying to win over Turkey’s ethnic Kurdish citizens to Mormon beliefs.

Brunson spent considerable time explainig to the court why he, an evangelical, is not Mormon and would have no connection to the LDS church. Another anonymous witness testified that Brunson’s church — along with all American churches as well as the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency — were members of a secret organization, complete with a secret handshake, that controlled all church workers who live in other countries. While eyes rolled even in the Turkish media, the court regarded the testimony with sober attention.

Some witness testimonies in the indictment claimed that strong PKK sympathies were commonly expressed among the congregation in Brunson’s Izmir Resurrection Church. One anonymous source accused the church of displaying pro-PKK flags and slogans.

On 12 October, the Washington Post reported, some prosecution witnesses began to take back their original testimony. “One witness, Levent Kalkan, said that investigators misunderstood his original testimony that had implicated Brunson in harboring coup suspects in 2016,” the Post reported.

“The man that Kalkan has said witnessed the protection of the fugitives appeared in court Friday to say that he had seen no such thing.

“ ‘I never told Levent that,’ the witness, Yilmaz Demirjan, said,” according to the Post.

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