A Turkish prosecutor today demanded a life sentence for U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson on charges of “leading a terrorist organization.” The North Carolina pastor, who is a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, served a small Protestant congregation without incident for over two decades in Izmir, a city on Turkey’s Aegean coast. Turkish authorities detained Brunson in October 2016, and have since held him in pretrial detention without an indictment.
Brunson has no due process or chance of a fair trial in Turkey. Under the country’s draconian state of emergency, the pastor had no access to legal counsel or consular officials for the first two months of his detention, and authorities continue to deny him attorney-client privilege. Prosecutors initially charged Brunson with membership in a terrorist organization, and then added the more serious, but equally groundless, charges of espionage and attempting to overthrow the Turkish government.
The pastor’s attorney has to defend him without having any access to the “secret evidence” and the “secret witness” being used to frame him. Media outlets subservient to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, have been printing ludicrous accusations against the pastor and smear him regularly. The Takvim daily, which belongs to a pro-government media conglomerate run by Erdogan’s son-in-law and his brother, claimed that the pastor was the mastermind of Turkey’s failed coup and would have become the CIA director had he succeeded in overthrowing the government.
The U.S. pastor’s physical and mental health has been steadily worsening in prison. After spending many months with 20 inmates in a cell built for eight, Brunson was transferred to a maximum-security prison. Sandra Jolley and Kristina Arriaga, the vice chairs of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) who visited the pastor in October 2017, reported that Brunson is “in a cell with two others, but he is the only American, the only English speaker, and the only Christian in the prison.” In December 2017, Pastor Brunson shared a note with his wife, saying, “one of my big fears has been that I will be forgotten in prison.” Since his arrest, the pastor has lost more than 50 pounds.
U.S. officials’ appeals to their Turkish counterparts have so far fallen on deaf ears. During Erdogan’s Washington visit in May 2017, President Donald Trump brought up the issue three times. Outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Brunson’s wife in Ankara during his March 2017 visit. In his February 2018 joint press conference with the Turkish Foreign Minister, Tillerson asked again for the release of Brunson and other U.S. citizens “unjustly detained.”
Meanwhile, there are growing calls for tougher action against Ankara. The pastor’s daughter Jacqueline Furnari recently addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, stating, “Turkey should not get away with holding my father one more day.” Her words are echoed by Brunson’s colleagues, who demand the U.S. government take action against Ankara’s appalling treatment of Brunson.
Indeed, earlier this year, Senator James Lankford (R-OK) called on the White House to institute targeted sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act and on the secretary of state to deny entry to the U.S. to Turkish officials “knowingly responsible for the wrongful or unlawful prolonged detention of citizens or nationals of the United States.” A Turkish prosecutor’s attempt today to sentence Brunson for life will only strengthen such calls, as can be seen from USCIRF’s immediate reaction urging the administration and Congress to “redouble their ongoing efforts” and to impose “targeted sanctions against those involved in this miscarriage of justice.”
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.
Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.