A Turkish court refused to release an American pastor from jail on Monday, prolonging an imprisonment that's angered the U.S. congress and been a key point of tension in U.S.-Turkey relations for almost two years.
The case adds to a series of disputes already hurting Turkey's ties with Washington, including the trial of a Turkish banker on charges of helping Iran evade sanctions in New York. A U.S. court on Monday adjourned the trial of the banker until May 7. Soon after, the Turkish court took a similar step and postponed the pastor's trial to May 7, drawing an apparent link between the two highly charged cases.
Andrew Brunson, imprisoned in Turkey since a 2016 coup attempt, faces a maximum of 35 years in prison for pursuing goals of two of Ankara's sworn enemies, state-run Anadolu news agency reported: U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government accuses of masterminding the botched putsch, and the autonomy-seeking Kurdish PKK group, branded a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Turkey.
Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Samuel Dale Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom at State Department, attended the opening hearing against Brunson in the Aegean port town of Aliaga to stress the U.S. sensitivity about the case. Brownback urged the pastor's quick release, according a transcript of his remarks by the The Associated Press Television.
"This, has been held, where he is innocent, is an impediment for our relationship moving forward," Brownback said. President Donald Trump and other senior U.S. officials have spoken with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the case and "this continues to come up, will continue to come up, until he's no longer held. And you'll continue to see a very high-level US government interest in this, until he is released."
Brunson is accused of allegedly acting together with a group of military and intelligence personnel against the Turkish government and obtaining classified information with the aim of political and military espionage, according to the indictment. He is also facing charges of engaging in activities to exploit ethnic and religious differences to divide Turkey and incite internal unrest. Furthermore, Brunson is accused of proselytizing in predominantly Muslim Turkey and acting like a member of a guerrilla group under the guise of an Evangelical church pastor, the indictment said.
The pastor rejected allegations during Monday's hearing during which he suffered a nervous breakdown and burst into tears, according to Hurriyet newspaper. Brunson explained that he was under medication due to solitary confinement in prison, Hurriyet said.
"I do not accept the charges mentioned in the indictment. I have never been involved in any illegal activities," Brunson, wearing a white shirt and black suit, said as he made his defense in Turkish language, according to Hurriyet.
If convicted, Brunson could be imprisoned for several years in a Turkish prison.
"This situation is no longer serious -- it's critical," the American Center for Law and Justice that has been campaigning for the pastor's release said in a statement on its website.