An American pastor Monday went on trial in Turkey on terror-related charges after spending the last one-and-a-half years behind bars, in a case that has increased friction between Ankara and Washington.
Andrew Brunson, who ran a protestant church in the western city of Izmir, was detained by Turkish authorities in October 2016 and then remanded in custody. If convicted, he risks up to 35 years in jail.
Brunson, wearing a white shirt and a black suit, was present in court in the town of Aliaga north of Izmir for the hearing, an AFP correspondent said.
In an indication of the importance of the case for Washington, also in court were Sam Brownback, the US ambassador at large for religious freedoms, and Senator Thom Tillis.
Turkish prosecutors have charged Brunson with engaging in activities on behalf of the group led by Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara says is behind the failed 2016 coup, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Both are banned by Turkey as terror groups. Brunson is also accused of espionage for political or military purposes.
If convicted, he faces two separate terms of 15 years and 20 years in prison, his lawyer Cem Halavurt told AFP.
However the charges appear lighter than those outlined in the original indictment published on March 13, in which Brunson was accused of being a member of Gulen’s group and risked life imprisonment if convicted.
The latest indictment explicitly states he is not charged with being a member of Gulen’s group or the PKK.
“He is both nervous but also excited because it is the first time he will appear before a judge. He has expectations and a hope,” Halavurt told AFP ahead of the hearing.
– ‘Give us the pastor’-
The Brunson case has further raised the temperature of heated relations between NATO allies Turkey and the United States, with US President Donald Trump raising the issue in talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Relations are already tense over American backing for a Kurdish militia in Syria despised by Ankara and the jailing of two employees at American missions in Turkey.
Gulen, who lives in self-exile in the US state of Pennsylvania, firmly denies any role in the failed coup and says his Hizmet (Service) movement promotes a peaceful form of Islam.
Turkey has sent a spate of documents to back up its repeated request for Gulen’s extradition from the United States, which has so far shown no sign of interest in expelling the preacher.
In September last year, Erdogan suggested that Turkey could free Brunson if Washington handed over Gulen, raising the idea of a swap deal.
“They say ‘give us the pastor’. You have a preacher (Gulen) there. Give him to us, and we will try (Brunson) and give him back,” Erdogan said then. The idea was brushed off by the United States.
But Washington has been working intensely to secure the release of Brunson, one of several American nationals caught up in the crackdown after the failed coup.
The US authorities in November and February quietly dropped all charges against 11 bodyguards of Erdogan accused of attacking protesters during the Turkish strongman’s visit to Washington last year.
Two supporters of Erdogan jailed in the same case are due to be freed in the next weeks after a plea deal.
Yet Washington has always rejected the notion of any kind of bargaining over Brunson.
“There is no use in pushing this case on political grounds. There is a victim and we must first of all assure his right to freedom and security,” said Halavurt.
Evangelical pastor Brunson was initially detained along with his wife Norine although she was released in December 2016. Norine was also present in court for the hearing.
“Please pray that… the cord around Andrew would be loosened/untied,” Norine wrote on a Facebook page devoted to her husband’s case ahead of the trial.
Eric Garner’s daughter says firing Daniel Pantaleo ‘should have happened a long time ago’
Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who killed Eric Garner in 2014 by using an illegal chokehold, was fired Monday and stripped of his pension benefits. The decision came more than five years after Pantaleo held Garner, an unarmed African-American man, in a chokehold until he dropped to the ground. Before dying, he gasped “I can’t breathe” 11 times. Despite outcry from the family and community members, Pantaleo had remained on the police force on desk duty since the killing. Last month, on the fifth anniversary of Garner’s death, the Justice Department declined to charge Pantaleo with a crime despite calls by the Garner family and their supporters that the city punish him and other officers involved. Over the years, Garner’s case has helped drive the Black Lives Matter movement for police accountability. His family is continuing their fight for justice, calling on the New York City Police Department to fire the other officers involved in Garner’s death, and vowing to block any appeals made by Pantaleo’s attorney. We speak with Eric Garner’s youngest daughter, Emerald Garner.
Italy PM says to resign as crisis comes to a head
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Tuesday he would resign, lashing out at far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini for pursuing his own interests by pulling the plug on the government coalition.
"I'm ending this government experience here... I will go to the president of the republic (Sergio Mattarella) to inform him of my resignation", after a Senate debate, Conte said after an almost hour-long speech to the chamber.
"It is irresponsible to initiate a government crisis," Conte said after Salvini began his efforts to bring down the government in the hope of snap elections he hoped would make him premier.
Bret Baier pushes back at Trump’s criticisms of Fox News: ‘We have a news side and an opinion side’
Fox News host Bret Baier called out President Donald Trump for claiming that Fox News had "changed" after the conservative cable network released a poll showing him trailing behind four of the Democratic presidential frontrunners in the 2020 race.
"OK. Well, Fox has not changed," Baier said in response to Trump during a segment from Monday's edition of "Special Report." "We have a news side and an opinion side. The opinion folks express their opinions. We do polls. Our latest poll had the Democratic candidates head-to-head, several of them ahead of President Trump. And this poll tracks exactly what the Real Clear Politics average of polls — even a little the other way — and this poll matches what we are seeing out there."