The trial of a U.S. pastor whose arrest in Turkey 16 months ago has led to diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Turkish governments opened on Monday, the pro-government NTV news channel said.
Andrew Brunson, who faces a possible life sentence on charges of membership of banned terrorist organisations, rejected the charges against him, Reuters reported.
Brunson is charged with membership of both the Gülen movement, a secretive Islamist sect that Turkey blames for the 2016 failed coup, and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a secular Kurdish left-wing group fighting Turkey since 1984.
"I've never done something against Turkey. I love Turkey. I've been praying for Turkey for 25 years... I do not accept the charges mentioned in the indictment. I was never involved in any illegal activities," Reuters quoted Brunson saying.
Tight security measures were in place at the court in the western city of Izmir. A group of U.S. senators arrived in İzmir for the hearing, NTV said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in September that Turkey would exchange Brunson for U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, the man Ankara accuses of orchestrating the 2016 abortive putsch.
The U.S. State Department has called for Turkey to release Brunson and in February, 37 U.S. senators and 78 members of Congress signed a letter to Erdoğan demanding his unconditional release.
In September of 2016, Turkish authorities ordered Brunson to be deported from Izmir where he had been living for two decades, citing “activities threatening national security”.
But before the deportation was carried out, an anonymous witness testified in another case that Brunson had carried out missionary activities across Turkey and contacted the Gülen movement. The pastor was then arrested on charges of membership of the Gülen movement on Dec. 9, 2016.