A Turkish court has decided to continue holding American Pastor Andrew Brunson in prison, to await a fourth hearing on October 12. Brunson, who has been in jail in Turkey since October 7, 2016, is accused of "membership in an armed terrorist organization." His first court hearing took place on April 16 this year, after 18 months in detention.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) condemned the charges and is calling for Brunson's immediate release. In a statement released on July 18, USCIRF Vice Chair Kristina Arriaga excoriated the Turkish government, which she accused of "continu[ing] to make a mockery of justice in its treatment of Pastor Brunson."
Denouncing Brunson's case as a "miscarriage of justice," Arriaga added, "Turkish authorities still have not provided one good reason for depriving Pastor Brunson of his liberties. The Trump Administration and the Congress should continue to apply pressure, including using targeted sanctions against officials connected to this case, until Pastor Brunson is released."
Brunson was charged with terrorism (including "Christianization") and espionage, which carry a sentence of up to 35 years' imprisonment. According to the lengthy indictment, the pastor is linked to the movement of Fethullah Gülen -- an Islamic cleric who has lived in self-exile in the United States for three decades – and whom the Turkish government accuses of plotting the failed coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016.
The American Center for Law and Justice, which has been advocating Brunson's release, began circulating a petition a few months ago that states, in part:
"The 62-page indictment, wholly lacking merit, provides no evidence regarding criminal action by Pastor Andrew, which comes as no surprise... Incredibly, the indictment now admits that Turkey considers 'Christianization' to be an act of terrorism... Now, more than ever, we need to remind Turkey that the eyes of the world are watching this case closely and the world is demanding Pastor Andrew's release."
Erdogan is apparently using Brunson's detention as a bargaining chip to seek the extradition of his ally-turned-foe, Gülen, in exchange for the pastor's freedom.
Brunson, who for more than 20 years served the Izmir Diriliş (Resurrection) Church, a small evangelical Presbyterian congregation, is now demonized by the pro-government Turkish media as a "terrorist supporter" and a "spy" hostile to Turkey.
American Pastor Andrew Brunson, held in a Turkish prison on baseless charges of "terrorism" and "espionage." (Photo: The American Center for Law and Justice)
The practice of targeting and arresting peaceful individuals or dissident citizens for political reasons is nothing new in Erdogan's Turkey; since the failed coup, it has increased. Take the case of Eren Erdem, for example, an author, journalist and former MP of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), and now in jail on doubtful charges of "aiding terrorists." Many say that his real "crime" was to expose how members and supporters of Islamic State (ISIS) have been operating freely in Turkey – a charge that raises the issue of how actual jihadist terrorists are treated by Ankara.
In a parliamentary speech in 2016, Erdem gave examples of ISIS members who were released after being arrested:
"Yunus Durmaz [an ISIS official] said to the police that they [his cell along with another sleeper cell] carried out the Suruc massacre in Antep but he was released.... Yunus Emre Alagoz [Ankara suicide bomber] was arrested in 2011 and then released. All the people in the Adiyaman ISIS cell were arrested and then released. These men have killed around 300 to 400 of our people.
"This man [showing the photo of ISIS official, Halis Bayancuk] is mentioned in three investigations. He is accused of sending militants from Turkey to al Qaeda in Afghanistan. In another investigation he is confirmed to have sent militants from Turkey to the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa in Syria. Weapons, ammunition and a car filled with explosives were found during a police raid on his house. And this person is still free. But journalists, academics and students are put behind bars the moment they make a statement... Is there anyone here who could name this type of a regime?"
In November 2015, Erdem submitted a parliamentary question to Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Berat Albayrak about "foreign press reports" according to which documents were found in the computer of an ISIS official in charge of oil smuggling, indicating that Turkey "transfers 40 million dollars every month to ISIS."
"How much money does Turkey transfer to ISIS in oil smuggling?" Erdem asked. "Has our government ever attempted to stop money transferring to ISIS?"
In August 2016, the minister issued a strong denial. "The allegations that Turkey is buying oil from is a dirty propaganda war."
In December, 2015, Erdem submitted another parliamentary question to then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. The text read, in part:
"The press covered that the South Korean police and intelligence service (NIS) opened investigation two weeks ago against the South Korean firm DaeKwang, which produces pepper spray for Turkey, for supplying explosive materials for ISIS and that its Turkish partner companies, Meydan and Mercan, are also mentioned in the investigation. It is alleged that DaeKwang delivered DK-3M hand grenades to the Mercan and Meydan companies to be transferred to ISIS."
Among the questions Erdem asked was whether Turkey had "opened an investigation into the Mercan and Meydan companies, and if it was true that [they] operated as intermediaries in the transfer of ammunition to ISIS." The government has yet to provide a response.
The government has also not responded to any of the many additional questions Erdem continued to submit – on issues such as the activities of an ISIS-affiliated association in Istanbul; the 2016 ISIS bombing attacks and sleeper cells in Gaziantep; the government's imposing publication bans about terrorist attacks across the country; and allegations concerning the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters selling Turkish armored vehicles to ISIS.
At the same time, an American pastor who has lived and worked in Turkey for 23 years without a mishap, and a former MP who has dedicated his career to exposing ISIS activities, are behind bars on totally false charges of "terrorism." Meanwhile, there are ISIS sleeper cell houses seventy cities across Turkey, according to a 2015 "confidential" note by a Turkish chief of police.
Turkey became a NATO member in 1952. "NATO enlargement has furthered the U.S. goal of a Europe whole, free, and at peace," according to the U.S. Department of State. However, Turkey's actions appear to make the region a more unstable, un-free and violent place.
Turkey's arbitrary arrests of Brunson, Erdem and many other innocent individuals expose Erdogan's regime as a brutal dictatorship that invades its neighbors, does not tolerate diversity, and targets Christians and peaceful dissidents who oppose jihad – actions that run counter to the US State Department's minimum requirements for membership in NATO.
Uzay Bulut, a journalist from Turkey, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute. She is currently based in Washington D.C.