U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson had his second hearing before a Turkish court on Monday after sitting in a Turkish prison for the last 18 months while facing groundless accusations of espionage and terrorism. The Turkish judges again refused to release the pastor, asking him to return on July 18. Brunson is one of the numerous Western nationals Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is holding as pawns to advance his “hostage diplomacy” with the West.
The prosecution has built the case against Brunson on ludicrous accusations from three “secret witnesses.” The 62-page indictment, a muddled collection of conspiracy theories, provides no concrete evidence of any wrongdoing. Instead, it cites a video sent to Brunson showing Middle Eastern food and the color of a man’s scarf standing behind the pastor in a photo as proof of his involvement in terrorist acts.
The show trial of the American pastor descended further into farce during the latest hearing. On Monday, the Turkish prosecutor tried to patch up his case by introducing a fourth secret witness, a purported former parishioner of Brunson’s codenamed “Serhat” (Frontier). In his rambling testimony via videoconference, where his face and voice were distorted, “Serhat” claimed that Brunson was trying to establish a Christian Kurdish state and providing U.S. forces the coordinates of drop sites for weapons shipments to the PKK, a militant Kurdish group designated as a foreign terrorist organization by Washington. Neither this witness, nor his accusations appear in the original indictment; and it is bizarre that the prosecution introduced these new charges after waiting for 18 months.
The Turkish media’s campaign to smear Brunson also continued on Monday. While the new secret witness was testifying, the pro-Erdogan daily Yeni Safak rushed to publish an article repeating the latest slanders alongside an elaborate infographic, raising suspicions of a coordinated campaign to frame the pastor.
Brunson’s trial continues to draw high-level U.S. officials to court. Sam Brownback, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, and Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) both attended Brunson’s first hearing on April 16. Sandra Jolley, the vice-chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and Philip Kosnett, chargé d'affaires at the U.S. embassy in Turkey, were present this week. Following the hearing, Jolley said in a statement that the “proceedings were dominated by wild conspiracies, tortured logic, and secret witnesses, but no real evidence to speak of.” She also denounced as “unconscionable” the judge’s decision to “dismiss all of the witnesses called by Pastor Brunson’s defense without listening to a single minute of their testimony.”
Following Brunson’s first hearing on April 16, USCIRF called for “imposition of targeted sanctions against those involved in this miscarriage of justice.” Four days later, a bipartisan group of 66 senators penned a letter to Erdogan demanding Brunson’s release and warning that punitive measures may be necessary. On April 26, Senators James Lankford (R-OK), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), and Thom Tillis (R-NC) introduced a bill to prevent the transfer of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft to Turkey, citing Erdogan’s “reckless governance and disregard for the rule of law.”
With the farcical hearing on May 7, Erdogan has doubled down on the U.S. pastor and shown that he will escalate the crisis further. This will likely trigger further reaction from Washington, putting bilateral relations between two NATO allies on a crash course.
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.
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