Congress is prepared to sanction Turkey if the NATO ally does not release an American missionary jailed since October 2016 on what Washington contends are trumped-up charges.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., explained in a Fox News interview Friday that Andrew Brunson had been doing humanitarian work in the country for 23 years, renewing his visa periodically with no problems. But in October 2016, he was swept up in a crackdown by the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a failed coup attempt.
“We need to forcibly respond,” the senator said.
Lankford told Fox News U.S. officials believe Brunson was caught in the crackdown by accident, but now Turkey has accused him of aiding the coup attempt, without any evidence, apparently to gain “some sort of leverage against the United States.”
“What we need to do is impose sanctions against the individual judges, the individual prosecutors, against the individuals and Ankara’s government that are actually holding an American with trumped up charges – for a year with no charges at all,” the senator said.
Lankford said he met with Turkey’s minister of justice in 2016, who had filed no charges at that point. The government took more than a year to press charges.
Brunson, 50, appeared in court on Monday in the first phase of his trial in the Aegean Sea town of Aliaga. In attendance were Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, who represents Brunson’s home state of North Carolina, and Sam Brownback, the former Kansas senator and governor, and the current U.S. ambassador at large for religious freedom. The next court date is May 7.
Brunson is accused of aiding a group led by Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Muslim preacher who Turkish authorities allege was behind the failed 2016 coup. Gulen now lives in Pennsylvania, and it’s believed Erdogan ordered Brunson jailed to use him as a bargaining chip to secure Gulen’s extradition.
Lankford insisted the charge is absurd, arguing Gulen and Brunson “are completely unconnected.”
“Why a Christian pastor would be connected to a Muslim mystic, I have no idea, and this pastor has no idea,” he said.
Brunson explained why he has lived in Turkey for a quarter of a century.
“I’ve never done something against Turkey. I love Turkey. I’ve been praying for Turkey for 25 years. I want truth to come out,” he said, according to Reuters. “I do not accept the charges mentioned in the indictment. I was never involved in any illegal activities.”
Brunson in ‘extremely grim prison’
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, said that after the hearing, instead of being returned to the prison where he had been held most recently, the judge ordered Brunson to be taken to “an overcrowded and extremely grim prison” where he was held initially.
The next three weeks prior to the May 7 court date, said Sekulow, who is advocating for Brunson’s release, are critical for the pastor.
Sekulow said Brunson is “on trial because of his Christian faith, noting the 62-page indictment accuses him of “Christianization,” calling it an act of terror.
If convicted, Brunson faces a 35-year prison sentence.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said after Monday’s hearing that the U.S. government “has seen no credible evidence that Mr. Brunson is guilty of a crime and are convinced that he is innocent.”
“We hope that the judicial system in Turkey will resolve his case in a timely, fair and transparent manner,” she said.
Tillis spoke with reporters after the hearing.
“We are very disappointed. If anything, I think the information that has been presented today creates a more compelling reason why he is innocent,” he said, reported Agence France-Presse.
Tillis also went to Turkey in March to meet with Brunson after hearing the pastor was “really concerned that maybe the American people would look at the indictment and believe it and forget him.”
“It was important for me to go over there, face-to-face visit him in prison and tell him that that’s not going to happen,” Tillis told the Charlotte Observer.
Relations between the U.S. and Turkey have been on edge over American backing for a Kurdish militia in Syria that Turkey has declared to be a terrorist group.
President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have called attention to Brunson’s plight.
Spoke to Pastor Brunson’s wife this week. Assured her of our prayers & @POTUS & I are monitoring his trial in Turkey. Pastor Brunson is a good & godly man who should be reunited w/ his family, friends & congregation. It’s time the Turkish govt release him. #FreeAndrewBrunson https://t.co/1KD04rveTE
— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) April 18, 2018