Turkish court frees American pastor, but issues remain with United States

A Turkish court on Friday freed American pastor Andrew Brunson, incarcerated on terrorism charges for two years, sentencing him to time served and lifting his travel ban so that he can return to the United States.

“Brunson's release today is welcome - he was unjustly accused and the evidence against him was a Kafkaesque mess from the start. In this he is like tens of thousands of others who have been unjustly detained and prosecuted in Turkey,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Middle East history professor at St. Lawrence University and Turkey specialist at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

Three prosecution witnesses retracted their previous statements at the hearing, saying their testimony was either misunderstood, circumstantial or biased.

Brunson, a 50-year-old Evangelical Presbyterian and father of three from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was initially taken into custody in October 2016. He was formally arrested the following December on charges of terrorism, espionage and involvement in the botched coup earlier that year, and moved to house arrest last July. He initially faced up to 35 years in prison.

The Brunson case, regarded by experts as a political show trial used by Ankara as leverage to gain concessions from the United States and embraced by U.S. President Donald Trump and his Evangelical supporters as a cause célèbre, has come to exemplify the dramatic deterioration of relations between Washington and Ankara.

The indictment rested mostly on wild claims from secret witnesses, who insist that Mormons (a religious community separate from and often an odds with Brunson’s Evangelical faith), in collaboration with the CIA, FBI and NSA, are conspiring to bring about the biblical apocalypse in Turkey.

“There’s nothing [in the trial] that would [hold up] in a US court. The basis of the claims range from hearsay to guilt by association to sheer fantasy,” said Eissenstat.

These included statements from a new secret witness about having recently seen Brunson’s wife attending a Christian gathering that made the witness “uncomfortable”.

“The new secret witnesses gave ridiculous statements. They mentioned issues having nothing to do with Andrew,” Brunson’s lawyer İsmail Cem Halavurt told Ahval on Thursday.

Many officials and observers had been cautiously optimistic that Brunson would be released following leaks on Thursday that Ankara and Washington had made a political deal involving an easing of American economic pressure on Turkey.

“One key question that arises out of Brunson's release is what the Turkish government got in return: there are a tremendous number of issues on the table,” Eissenstat told Ahval.

“The U.S. government was right to pressure Turkey for his release; it’s unfortunate that they haven’t given equal effort to win the release of other U.S. citizens held in Turkey or for U.S. consular staff (imprisoned a year ago on political charges),” he said.

Ömer Taşpınar, a professor at the U.S. National War College and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the very existence of a political deal exemplified Turkey’s politically compromised judiciary, despite President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s many claims to the contrary.

“If it’s out in the open that there’s a deal in exchange for something, it proves that … the judiciary in Turkey really isn’t independent, and it’s basically just Erdoğan making decisions regarding who’s going to remain in jail and who’s going to get out.”

Brunson’s release had initially been expected in July amidst reports of a deal having been brokered, but the pastor was only released from prison to house arrest, which Trump furiously described as a “total disgrace,” calling Brunson a “hostage”.

Washington responded with sanctions on the Turkish interior and justice ministers and doubled tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium, for which America is the largest market. The already fragile Turkish economy suffered greatly, with the lira almost instantly losing 18 percent of its value before somewhat recovering.

Experts say the Brunson issue is in fact the easiest of the many disputes between Turkey and its NATO ally to solve, and Brunson’s long-awaited release does not resolve this bilateral crisis.

“The idea that relations will go smoothly now that he’s released, I think that’s too optimistic. It’s a choice between functional dysfunction and utter disaster at this point,” said Nicholas Danforth, a senior policy analyst specialising in Turkey at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “Brunson’s release is necessary but not sufficient to continue a functional U.S.-Turkish relationship.”

“Brunson is the easy case,” said Eissenstat. “It’s the case that has caused Washington to wonder whether Turkey wants a relationship at all, precisely because it’s gratuitous and was the easy one to solve.”

Relations rapidly deteriorated in the aftermath of Turkey’s failed coup in 2016, when Turkish officials accused the United States – with no evidence – of involvement, and demanded Washington hand over Erdoğan’s archenemy and American resident Fethullah Gülen. Erdoğan later suggested exchanging Gülen for Brunson.

American military support for the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated a terrorist group by not just Turkey but also the United States, did not help relations. Nor did Ankara’s support for jihadist militant groups in Syria, its willingness to allow Islamic State to operate on its territory, and massive, ongoing human rights abuses following the coup, including a NASA scientist and Turkish staff from the American consulate thrown in jail on flimsy charges.

“The series of crises and the ways in which the relationship has been exacerbated has fundamentally altered thinking on both sides of the Atlantic,” Eissenstat said. “The assuredness – ‘Of course we’ll work for these issues, of course we need a relationship’ – I don’t think that’s there any more.”

The Trump administration’s policies in the region, unpopular in Turkey, have also exacerbated tensions.

“The line that the administration has taken in the Middle East – doubling down on its support for Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt against Iran – makes it increasingly difficult to find common ground with Turkey,” Danforth said.

Last summer, Congress delayed shipments of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey in response to Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air and missile defence system.

“There are a lot of people in Congress who’ve been very clear that until Turkey drops the S-400 purchase, they don’t want Turkey to get F-35s. That’s going to be difficult to overcome,” said Danforth, stressing that irritation with Turkey is widespread and bipartisan.

“Erdoğan has done a remarkable job of unifying the U.S. political spectrum. People on the left see [the Brunson case] as a human rights and democracy issue, people on the right and the Evangelical community see this as a matter of American pride or an issue of a Christian imprisoned in a Muslim country,” he said. 

“Turkey has very few defenders left anywhere in Washington. Increasingly, people in the United States have started to see Turkey as a country that’s working against our interests.”

However, considerable obstacles notwithstanding, Brunson’s release is at least a step towards resolving the more fundamental issues between the nominal allies, said Danforth.

“It gives us the opportunity to muddle through, to preserve a frustrating but moderately functional relationship.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.