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Turkish court rejects appeals to release jailed American pastor

A Turkish court ruled July 18 to keep Andrew Brunson, an American pastor being tried on terrorism-related charges, in prison as his trial continues. (Video: Reuters)

ALIAGA, Turkey — A Turkish court on Wednesday rejected appeals to release Andrew Brunson, an American pastor being tried on terrorism-related charges whose prosecution and lengthy imprisonment have become a flash point in the increasingly testy relationship between the United States and Turkey.

Brunson, from North Carolina, has been charged with espionage and collusion with terrorist organizations, including Kurdish militants. Brunson’s supporters and independent analysts have called the accusations baseless and say he is being used as a bargaining chip by Turkey to win concessions from the United States.  

He has been held by Turkish authorities for nearly two years. Brunson’s supporters said they had been hopeful he might be released after Wednesday’s hearing amid signs of a recent thaw in the U.S.-Turkey relationship and after a chummy encounter between President Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the NATO meeting in Brussels last week.  

Trump, responding to the court’s decision on Twitter, called it a “total disgrace” and said Brunson had “been held hostage for too long.”

On Wednesday, after a prosecutor requested that Brunson be remanded, a judge set the next court date for Oct. 12.  

Speaking after the hearing, Philip Kosnett, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Turkey, said he was “disappointed.” 

“I have read the indictment, I have attended three hearings, I don’t believe there is any indication that Pastor Brunson is guilty of any sort of criminal or terrorist activity,” he said.

The case has tested Trump’s preference for flattery over confrontation with some world leaders, as he is weathering harsh criticism in the United States for praising Russian President Vladimir Putin during a summit between the two leaders in Helsinki.   

Trump has maintained warm relations with Erdogan even as ties between the two countries have become strained. U.S. lawmakers have derided Erdogan as an increasingly unpredictable and autocratic ally and called for sanctions against Turkey.   

 But during the NATO summit, Trump singled out Erdogan among other NATO leaders for praise, saying that “he does things the right way,” according to a person who was there during the exchange.   

 The United States and Turkey have clashed over war strategy in Syria, Turkey’s plans to purchase a Russian missile defense system and the jailing of several American citizens in Turkey. Erdogan has also pressed the Trump administration to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania. Turkish authorities accuse Gulen of orchestrating an attempted coup in Turkey in July 2016. Gulen has denied involvement.  

 Erdogan suggested in a speech last year that Gulen could be traded for Brunson, a Christian missionary who had lived in Turkey for decades before his arrest in October 2016. After Brunson’s first court hearing in April, Trump tweeted about the case, saying that the pastor was “on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason.”

“They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is,” Trump wrote. 

The hearing on Wednesday was held in a large courtroom on the grounds of the prison where Brunson is an inmate. Prosecution witnesses tried to link Brunson and his churches in the Turkish city of Izmir to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, as well as the United States.

Brunson’s lawyer, Ismail Cem Halavurt, said the witnesses had provided no evidence of a connection to the militants or anything that tied Brunson to espionage. “If missionaries can’t work with Kurds and can’t work with refugees, what should they do?” the lawyer asked.

Brunson also addressed the court several times, as his wife, Norine Brunson, watched from the gallery, asserting his innocence and describing some of the prosecution witnesses as troubled former congregants.

Brunson said he forgave them. “I’m not here for politics,” he told the judge. “I’m here to serve God.”

Michael Birnbaum in Brussels contributed to this report.

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