A North Carolina pastor proclaimed his innocence in an Izmir province court on Monday as Turkish prosecutors are seeking 35 years in prison on false coup-related charges.
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, 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, which noted that the American pastor spoke in Turkish.
“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.
Brunson’s lawyer İsmail Cem Halavurt says Brunson was detained because of his faith, though Christianity is legal in Turkey. The Erdoğan regime has detained other Americans including a NASA scientist working on the U.S. mission to Mars, Serkan Gölge, who was visiting his parents in Turkey in July 2016 when he was arrested in the regime’s engulfing post-coup sweeps. Gölge was recently sentenced to 7.5 years in prison.
After the 12-hour hearing concluded, Brunson was returned to prison until the next hearing on May 7.
“The entire U.S. government is following Mr. Brunson’s case closely,” State Department press secretary Heather Nauert said in a statement. “We have seen no credible evidence that Mr. Brunson is guilty of a crime and are convinced that he is innocent. We believe that Turkey is a state bound by the rule of law, and we have faith in the Turkish people’s commitment to justice. We hope that the judicial system in Turkey will resolve his case in a timely, fair, and transparent manner.”