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
0

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.


UN, Palestinians launch humanitarian appeal after funding cuts

Updated 32 min 13 sec ago
0

UN, Palestinians launch humanitarian appeal after funding cuts

  • The 2019 Humanitarian Response Plan outlined 203 projects to be carried out by 88 different groups
  • The plan prioritized 1.4 million Palestinians most in need of food, health care, shelter, water and sanitation

JERUSALEM: The United Nations and the Palestinian Authority on Monday appealed for $350 million in humanitarian relief for Palestinians next year, saying that they needed more but had to be realistic in the face of “record-low” funding.
The 2019 Humanitarian Response Plan outlined 203 projects to be carried out by 88 different groups, including UN agencies and non-governmental organizations.
The plan prioritized 1.4 million Palestinians most in need of food, health care, shelter, water and sanitation, said Jamie McGoldrick, the UN humanitarian coordinator in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem.
“Humanitarian actors are facing unprecedented challenges, including record-low funding and a rise in attacks to delegitimize humanitarian action,” he said in a joint statement issued on Monday, ahead of the appeal’s launch in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Although “much more assistance is needed,” McGoldrick said, the plan was “reflecting what we can realistically accomplish in this highly constrained context.”
Over the past year, the United States has slashed its funding to the Palestinians, including to the UN agency that provides services to 5 million Palestinian refugees.
The United States promised $365 million to the agency in 2018, but paid only a first instalment of $60 million before announcing in August that it would halt all future donations.
The move was widely seen as a means of pressuring the Palestinian leadership to enter peace negotiations with Israel.
The Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem — territories that Israel captured and occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.
US-brokered peace talks between the sides collapsed in 2014 and a bid by US President Donald Trump to restart them has so far showed little progress.
Around 77 percent of the funds sought in the 2019 plan would go to Gaza, the appeal organizers said, because the densely populated coastal strip faced a “dire humanitarian situation” after years of an Israeli-led blockade, internal Palestinian political divisions and casualties from demonstrations and recurring hostilities.
“The humanitarian context in the oPt (Occupied Palestinian Territories) is still deteriorating due to the Israeli occupation violations in a time of lack of resources and declining funds because of the politicization of the humanitarian aid,” Palestinian Social Development Minister Ibrahim Al-Shaer said in the statement.