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Senators to Erdoğan: Free Pastor Held on 'Flights of Fantasy' Accusations

thom tillis outside brunson court in turkey

WASHINGTON -- Two-thirds of the Senate sent a letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Friday demanding that American pastor Andrew Brunson, who is going on trial for bogus espionage charges, be freed.

A Turkish court ruled after Brunson's hearing last Monday that he had to remain detained until his next hearing May 7 because he was deemed a flight risk.

Andrew Brunson and his wife, Norine, raised their family in Turkey and ministered through the Protestant Izmir Resurrection Church in the Aegean coast city. In October 2016, after living in the country for 23 years, they found a note on their door telling them to report to the migration management office for what they thought would be a visit connected to their visa renewal. Instead, officials detained the couple.

Norine was eventually released and allowed to stay in the country. The pastor, though, was sent to jail in December 2016 on a hazy accusation of "membership in an armed terrorist organization."

The indictment released last month charges that Brunson is linked to both the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, the Erdoğan opponent blamed for the July 2016 coup attempt. The Turkish government has rounded up tens of thousands of people since then, using broad false claims of Gülen links to go after political foes.

Prosecutors want Brunson to serve 20 years for espionage and 15 years for “committing crimes on behalf of terror organizations without being a member."

“I have never done anything against Turkey. I love Turkey. I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years. I want the truth to come out,” Brunson told the court in his defense today in the town of Aliağa, according to Hurriyet. Brunson spoke in fluent Turkish and at times wept.

“I do not accept the charges mentioned in the indictment. I have never been involved in any illegal activities,” he said. Brunson also denied that he spoke in favor of Kurdish independence or aided the PKK.

Hurriyet reported that Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) was in the courtroom, along with U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback.

Tillis and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) led the congressional letter to Erdoğan, which said the Senate "supports the ongoing efforts to strengthen law enforcement cooperation between U.S. agencies and their Turkish counterparts, including with regard to investigating alleged participants in the coup plot."

"However, we are deeply disturbed that the Turkish government has gone beyond legitimate action against the coup plotters to undermine Turkey’s own rule of law and democratic traditions. Under the State of Emergency, tens of thousands of Turkey’s own citizens as well as some citizens of the United States and other countries have been arrested, dismissed from employment or otherwise seen their lives destroyed on vague charges and dubious evidence. These actions by the government of Turkey are inconsistent with the commitment to law and justice that have historically been hallmarks of Turkish democracy," they wrote.