A Turkish court refused yesterday to release U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson, detained for 21 months on trumped-up charges of terrorism and espionage. Brunson is one of the more than 50 Western nationals, residents, and employees arrested on dubious charges as part of Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “hostage diplomacy,” designed to extract concessions from the West. The Turkish court’s decision to remand Brunson until October elicited a strong reaction across the U.S. political spectrum.
In the run-up to Brunson’s third court hearing on July 18, there was optimism that the pastor might finally walk free. Not only was Turkey’s draconian state of emergency set to expire the same day, but Erdogan, having won Turkey’s June 24 snap elections, could move forward without worrying about backlash from his Islamist and ultranationalist supporters. U.S. President Donald Trump’s fist bump with Erdogan at last week’s NATO Summit, along with Trump’s comment that Erdogan “does things the right way,” as well as the July 16 phone call between two presidents all strengthened expectations for Brunson’s release. The pastor’s lawyer, echoing the dominant mood, stated ahead of the hearing that the court might release Brunson.
The prosecution, however, disappointed the optimists by bringing additional witnesses to the court, who presented unsubstantiated claims and hearsay. Meanwhile, Turkey’s pro-government media continued to smear the pastor, denying him any possibility of a fair trial.
Following the court’s decision, U.S. officials responded forcefully. Kristina Arriaga, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, who attended the hearing, condemned Turkey’s “mockery of justice in its treatment of Pastor Brunson,” and called on the Trump administration and Congress to “continue to apply pressure, including using targeted sanctions against officials connected to this case, until Pastor Brunson is released.”
In his comments upon leaving the courthouse, Philip Kosnett, U.S. chargé d’affaires in Turkey, stated that the U.S. government is “deeply concerned” about Brunson as well as “the status of other American citizens and Turkish local employees of the U.S. diplomatic mission who have been detained under state of emergency rules.”
Four senior members of the U.S. Helsinki Commission highlighted the court’s setting of the next trial date for mid-October, criticizing the Turkish government for its “intention to keep this innocent man in jail past the two-year anniversary of his arrest without conviction or any credible evidence against him.” They also warned, “There is no room in NATO for hostage-taking.”
Meanwhile, Senators Thom Tillis (R-NC), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), James Lankford (R-OK), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) issued a joint statement, encouraging “the Administration to use all the tools at their disposal to ensure the release of these innocent people before Congress is forced to press for even stricter legislative measures that will be difficult to unwind.”
President Trump, who had received criticism for his endorsement of Erdogan at the NATO summit, tweeted last night that it was “a total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected U.S. Pastor,” and added, “he has been held hostage far too long,” while also urging Erdogan to “do something to free” Brunson.
The strong bipartisan reaction to Brunson’s imprisonment is an indication that Washington’s patience is wearing thin. Bloomberg reported that the Turkish court’s decision “sent the nation’s markets tumbling”: the Turkish lira lost value, yields on government bonds rose, and stocks slumped. Erdogan should reconsider whether his hostage diplomacy is worth wrecking not only U.S.-Turkish relations, but also Turkey’s flailing economy.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.
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