An American pastor arrested in Turkey in 2016 is facing life imprisonment after he was apprehended in retaliation for the U.S.’s refusal to extradite a political enemy of the Turkish president.
Turkish authorities arrested pastor Andrew Brunson of North Carolina in October of 2016 and charged him with membership in a terrorist organization after the U.S. refused to extradite imam Fethullah Gülen. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims Gülen orchestrated the failed 2016 coup in Turkey.
Turkish prosecutors made clear in their indictment of Brunson on Tuesday that they seek to imprison him for life, according to The Associated Press.
A court must still approve the indictment before prosecution against Brunson can proceed. The goal of life imprisonment lends further credence to Erdogan’s threat in May 2017 that Turkey would not release any foreign captives until their respective governments extradite Erdogan’s enemies, Gülen foremost among them.
Gülen is a Turkish Muslim cleric who has lived in Pennsylvania for 20 years and who some acknowledge as the second most powerful man in Turkey. He is the head of a large Islamic movement known as Hizmet, which translates as “service,” whose followers are known as Gülenists. The movement largely promotes a tolerant version of Islam centered around education and the principles of modesty and altruism.
The Gülenists were allies of Erdogan during his rise to power, but eventually became political rivals vying for governmental control. Erdogan blamed the Gülenists for the failed coup in 2016, but Gülen has denied any involvement and has instead asserted that Erdogan orchestrated the coup as a means to target Gülenists in Turkey’s military, who were arrested in large numbers after the coup’s failure.
U.S. authorities have refused Erdogan’s continuing demand for Gülen’s extradition, citing a lack of evidence that Gülen had any direct involvement in the coup.
Turkish authorities evidently do not see lack of evidence as much of an obstacle, as they charged Brunson not only with ties to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), but also with ties to Gülen without any evidence. Brunson, an elder in the Global Movement of Evangelical Presbyterian Churches, has been living in Turkey since 1993 helping to lead and plant churches.
Ayhan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former member of the opposition party in Turkey’s parliament, said that Erdogan is using Brunson as leverage and that the pastor has little hope of fair treatment by Turkey’s legal system.
“The Turkish government has no intentions of providing Pastor Brunson a fair trial,” Erdemir said, according to Christian Post.
“Ankara sees Brunson as a hostage that they can use as leverage in their relations with the United States,” he added.
Erdogan confirmed Erdemir’s analysis in 2017, when he suggested that the U.S. trade Gülen for Brunson.
“They say ‘give us the pastor’. You have a preacher (Gülen) there. Give him to us, and we will try (Brunson) and give him back,” Erdogan said, according to Daily Mail.
President Donald Trump has demanded Brunson’s release and that Turkey “expeditiously return him to the United States.”