Turkish court rules to keep US pastor in custody, calling him a 'flight risk'

US ambassador at large for religious freedoms, Samual Brownback, speaks to journalists in front of the Aliaga court and prison complex, during the trial of US pastor Andrew Brunson on Monday. AFP
Updated 17 April 2018
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Turkish court rules to keep US pastor in custody, calling him a 'flight risk'

  • If convicted or coup links, Pastor Brunson risks up to 35 years in jail
  • Brunson rejects all the accusations, says he loves Turkey

ALIAGA, Turkey: A Turkish court ruled Monday to keep an American Christian pastor in custody, deeming him to be a flight risk, after his trial opened in a case that has raised tensions with Washington.
Andrew Brunson, who ran a Protestant church in the western city of Izmir, has been detained by Turkish authorities since October 2016. If convicted, he risks up to 35 years in jail.
Brunson — wearing a black suit, speaking fluent Turkish and sometimes bursting into tears — emphatically rejected all the charges against him at the first court hearing in the town of Aliaga north of Izmir.
He is accused of engaging in activities on behalf of the group led by exiled Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen — who Ankara says is behind a failed 2016 coup — and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Both the Gulen movement and the PKK are banned by Turkey as terror groups.
Brunson is also accused of espionage for political or military purposes.
The judge ordered Brunson to stay in jail, setting the next hearing for May 7.
The ruling was based on evidence given by witnesses in the case and the risk that Brunson might flee.
The United States expressed concern.
“We have seen no credible evidence that Mr.Brunson is guilty of a crime and are convinced that he is innocent,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
“We hope that the judicial system in Turkey will resolve his case in a timely, fair and transparent manner.”
In an indication of the importance of the case for Washington, the hearing was attended by Sam Brownback, the US ambassador at large for religious freedom, and Senator Thom Tillis from Brunson’s home state of North Carolina.
“We are very disappointed. If anything, I think the information that has been presented today creates a more compelling reason why he is innocent,” Tillis told reporters after the ruling.
Brunson reacted with emotion, telling his wife Norine in English: “I am going crazy. I love you.”
He had earlier told the judge tearfully: “I want to return my home. For 16 months, I have been separated from my wife.”
“I want the whole truth to be revealed. I reject all the accusations in the indictment. I haven’t been involved in any illegal activity,” Brunson told the court.
“I haven’t done anything against Turkey. On the contrary, I love Turkey. I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years.”
He moved to the country in 1993 and opened his Izmir church in 2010.
The Brunson case has further hiked tensions between NATO allies Turkey and the United States, with US President Donald Trump raising the issue in talks with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Relations are already strained over American backing for a Kurdish militia in Syria despised by Ankara and the jailing of two employees at American missions in Turkey.
“That relationship is going to have difficulty in moving forward as long as Andrew Brunson is incarcerated,” Brownback told reporters at the courthouse.
In September, Erdogan suggested that Turkey could free Brunson if Washington handed over Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.
Washington brushed off the offer but has been working intensely to secure the release of Brunson, one of several American nationals caught up in the crackdown after the failed coup against Erdogan in July 2016.
In February, NASA scientist Serkan Golge, a dual national, was jailed for 7.5 years for being a member of Gulen’s movement in a conviction denounced by Washington.
Senator Tillis said there was “no deal,” adding: “This is about what we believe is an innocent man who has been in prison for a year and a half.”
In his statement to the court, Brunson rejected the accusations of links to Gulen’s group, saying: “That would be an insult to my religion. I am a Christian. I would not join an Islamic movement.”
Gulen denies any role in the failed coup and says his Hizmet (Service) movement promotes a peaceful form of Islam.
Numbering just several thousand, the Protestant community in overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Turkey largely comprises converts from Islam, expatriates and refugees.
The Turkish Association of Protestant Churches said in a report that 2017 was marked by continued hate crimes and physical attacks.
Brownback described the trial as a “religious freedom case.”
“Turkey, in its history, has been very open, so that’s one of the things that’s really troubling about this,” he said.


Erdogan’s ‘vile’ comments on Christchurch mosques shootings dismissed as not representative of Muslims

Updated 21 March 2019
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Erdogan’s ‘vile’ comments on Christchurch mosques shootings dismissed as not representative of Muslims

  • Turkish president has threatened to ‘send home in coffins’ visitors from Australia, New Zealand
  • Aussie and NZ leaders want Turkey to explain the ‘vile’ and ‘offensive’ remarks

JEDDAH: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was condemned on Wednesday for “vile, offensive and reckless” comments after last week’s Christchurch mosque terrorist attacks.

Australia summoned the Turkish ambassador in Canberra to explain the remarks, and New Zealand dispatched its foreign minister to Ankara to “set the record straight, face to face.”

Brenton Tarrant, 28, an Australian white supremacist, was charged with murder on Saturday after he shot dead 50 people during Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Erdogan, in election campaign rallies for his AK Party, urged New Zealand to restore the death penalty and said Turkey would make the killer pay if New Zealand did not.

He said anti-Muslim Australians who came to Turkey would be “sent back in coffins, like their grandfathers at Gallipoli,” and he accused Australian and New Zealand forces of invading Turkey during the First World War “because it is Muslim land.”

But an international affairs scholar in Riyadh said Erdogan’s comments should not be taken as representative of Muslims. 

"He is a propagandist and an unpredictable politician,” Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri told Arab News. “He keeps saying these things and then he issues an apology. Right now, he is making these incendiary comments to win elections.”

It was inappropriate behavior for a head of state, Al-Shehri said. “Which president would use such language and issue these kind of comments?”

In his speech, Erdogan said that the Gallipoli peninsula campaign in 1915 was in fact an attempt by British colonial forces to relieve their Russian allies. The attack was a military disaster, and more than 11,000 Australian and New Zealand forces were killed. Thousands of people from both countries travel each year to Turkey for war memorial services, and the anniversary is marked on Anzac Day every April 25.

“Remarks have been made by the Turkish President Erdogan that I consider highly offensive to Australians and highly reckless in this very sensitive environment,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said after summoning the Turkish ambassador and dismissing the “excuses” offered.

“I am expecting, and I have asked, for these comments to be clarified, to be withdrawn.” Morrison described claims about Australia and New Zealand’s response to the white supremacist attack as “vile.” He accused Erdogan of betraying the promise of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to forge peace between the two countries.

A memorial at Gallipoli carries Ataturk’s words: “There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets ... after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

“Ataturk sought to transform his country into a modern nation and an embracing nation, and I think these comments are at odds with that spirit,” Morrison said.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her deputy, Foreign Minister Winston Peters, would travel to Turkey to seek clarification of Erdogan’s comments. “He is going there to set the record straight, face-to-face,” she said.