WASHINGTON – A high-ranking State Department official told Congress on Wednesday that the physical condition of U.S. detainees in Turkey is “acceptable,” despite the fact that an emaciated American pastor has lost about 50 pounds in Turkish prison.
“The reports that I’ve seen indicate that their physical condition is acceptable,” Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Jonathan R. Cohen told the Helsinki Commission. “The concern is with detention, not so much the conditions of detention.”
Presbyterian Pastor Andrew Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for nearly 25 years, is one of several Americans and dual citizens the Turkish government detained in the wake of a July 2016 coup attempt. Brunson’s daughter, Jacqueline Furnari, testified on Wednesday that her father has lost significant weight while in detainment for more than 400 days. Brunson is accused of gathering state secrets for espionage, attempting to overthrow the Turkish government and attempting to change the constitutional order, charges which the State Department has said are meritless.
“My dad is not an armed terrorist trying to overthrow any government,” Furnari, who was raised in Turkey, said on Wednesday, calling the charges “absurd.”
Family attorney CeCe Heil, who works for the American Center for Law and Justice, said that Brunson, at one point, had been kept in a cell with at least 20 other prisoners, while the space was only designed for eight. Heil said that being the only Christian in the cell, Brunson was subject to verbal abuse, and he has been “beside himself” while separated from his family.
Furnari, who married her husband in a civil ceremony (the church wedding has been delayed) without her father present, said that he has dealt with anxiety and depression. She explained that in August he expressed worry about the cold winter, meaning he didn’t anticipate release anytime soon. As Heil described, Brunson has become a political bargaining chip for Turkey.
Nate Schenkkan, director of the Nations in Transit Project at Freedom House, said that observers should expect an expansion of prosecution efforts concerning the state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan established in the wake of the coup attempt. Under the state of the emergency, he said that there are “virtually no limits” on how far a judge may go and that it’s a system based on “guilt by association.”
Though Cohen said he was not able to offer an exact number on detainees, based on Privacy Act requirements, he noted that there are fewer than a dozen U.S. citizens and dual nationals detained on coup-related charges. He added that based on the number of individuals swept up in the counter-coup effort and the amount of time that has passed, “it looks to us like the state of emergency has exceeded its reasonable limits.”
When asked what needs to be done in order for the state of emergency to be lifted, Cohen replied, “When I asked this of Turks, and I’ll rely on what Turkish contacts have told me, they say given the breadth of the conspiracy that was perceived to be behind the coup, they believe they have more work yet to do before they can end the state of emergency, and they cannot point to a time on the calendar when they believe that will be accomplished.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who visited Turkey in 2011, described a sense of optimism in the country during that visit despite economic turmoil around the world. He also noted Turkish Airlines’ $11 billion deal this past September to purchase 40 Boeing Co.’s 787-9 Dreamliners.
“I think the sooner we get past these sort of things, which do not make me inclined to do anything with Turkey at this point in time, then we can get on to building those great relationships that I think would be mutually beneficial,” Tillis said.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) described Turkey as an important strategic partner, particularly in the fight against ISIS.
“We need Turkey. I would suggest Turkey needs us, and their sensitivity on certain issues is quite frankly beyond our understanding, but we do stand for universal values, and they need to embrace a more open way in which we can have those discussions as partners,” he said.
Several lawmakers told Furnari they will do whatever possible to free her father.