Conclusions to be drawn from pastor Brunson's release
American pastor Andrew Brunson, who led an evangelist church in Izmir for more than 20 years, was arrested in 2016 on charges of “spying and committing crime on behalf of a terrorist organisation without being a member”.
He was indicted on the basis of the testimony of an unidentified witness who told the Izmir public prosecutor’s office that Brunson was involved in activities to assist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists to seek asylum in foreign countries. Upon this testimony, the public prosecutor indicted him for a prison term of 35 years and Izmir criminal court issued a formal arrest warrant for Brunson who was already in custody.
He appeared three times in court, the first time being 18 months after his arrest. At a hearing of May 18, the judge refused to listen to the testimony of witnesses brought by the pastor. He agreed to listen to them during a second hearing on July 13, then the verdict was postponed until Oct. 12.
During this last hearing, the unidentified prosecution witnesses retracted their testimony and said they were misunderstood at the earlier hearing and that they were not so sure the pastor committed the crimes they mentioned in their earlier testimony. Brunson was sentenced to three years and forty-five days in jail, but the court, citing the term spent in jail, released him and he flew back home.
This incident had serious negative effects on Turkey-U.S. relations especially because both the U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence are pious evangelists. Pence said in July that Turkey would face consequences if it did not release Brunson. The U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on two Turkish cabinet ministers who it thought were responsible for the pastor’s arrest.
Two conclusions could be drawn from the Brunson case: One is an optimistic wish: Turkish-American relations are laden with complicated problems. They include the extradition of the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen who lives in the United States; the release of more than a dozen of other US citizens and locally employed U.S. embassy staff detained in Turkey; the U.S. promise to withdraw Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Manbij to the east of the River Euphrates; Washington’s opposition to Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system; the U.S. Congress resolution to bar the delivery of F-35 fighter aircraft to Turkey; the hefty fine that may be imposed on a Turkish lender, Halkbank, for its involvement in the circumvention of the U.S. embargo on Iran, which may cause additional damage to Turkey’s economy and the extradition of the bank’s deputy manager.
The pastor’s release removed one contentious issue from this long list. If the momentum that started with the solution of this problem can be maintained, it may prepare the ground for solving other contentious issues, but a strong commitment will be needed for this on both sides. For the moment, it does not augur well, because the pastor, once back home, after repeating that he still loves Turkey, told U.S. media of the hardship that he suffered in jail. Naturally, this will create enormous anti-Turkish feeling, especially in the evangelist circles. It will not be surprising if a producer makes a film to blacken Turkey’s image like Alan Parker’s film ‘Midnight Express’ that told the story of an American drug smuggler who stayed in Turkish jail.
On the other side of the coin, there are several unanswered questions: Why was pastor Brunson detained so long in jail? If has was guilty, why was he released? How is it that someone convicted with an indictment that demanded a sentence of 35 years ended up spending 19 months in prison?
These questions would not have been asked if the ‘independent and impartial’ Turkish judiciary was able to innovate a way to release the pastor with a method reminiscent of the one used to release, in February this year, the German journalist of Turkish origin, Deniz Yücel. Furthermore, Turkey and the United States would not have faced the damages it caused to Turkey’s economy on the one hand and to Turkish-American relations on the other.