As a high-level US delegation arrived in the Turkish capital today (23 January), in an effort to resolve high-level tensions between the two NATO allies, discussions were slated to include what officials in Washington have termed the “wrongful detention” of US pastor Andrew Brunson for the past 15 months.
Led by Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Asian Affairs Jonathan Cohen, the bilateral meetings in Ankara are the first sessions of a Joint Coordination Committee recently established between Turkish and US diplomatic and justice officials.
With the visit coming right on the heels of the Turkish military’s “Operation Olive Branch”, launched over the past weekend in Syria’s Afrin province, the Turkish media stressed that the delegation included officials from the US Defense Ministry.
But according to a report in Hurriyet Daily News today, “The working group’s agenda includes a number of issues that have led to tension in bilateral relations in recent months, including the visa crisis and ongoing investigations of US consular staff.”
In Brunson’s case, the pastor of Izmir’s Resurrection Church was inexplicably detained some weeks after a failed 15 July, 2016 coup attempt against the Turkish government. After two months’ refusal to deport him, it became clear he had been caught up in Ankara’s massive crackdown to identify and punish the so-called Fethullah Gülen Terror Organisation (FETO) network accused of infiltrating Turkey’s armed forces and government and masterminding the coup.
In the ongoing state of emergency law ever since, 50,150 “suspected” judges, prosecutors, soldiers, academics, journalists, human rights activists and police officers have been jailed and held for months in pre-trial detention for supporting Gülen, an exiled Turkish Muslim cleric residing in the US.
Still no indictment
Fifteen months after Brunson was first detained and threatened with deportation on 7 October, 2016, Turkey’s judiciary still hasn’t issued any written indictment spelling out the allegations against him.
According to vague reports in Turkey’s pro-government media, his charges are based on “secret evidence” and a “secret witness” accusing Brunson of trying to overthrow the Turkish government.
He and his lawyer continue to be denied access to his confidential case file. In effect, he has experienced no substantive “due process” – an individual’s legal entitlement to notice of a charge and a hearing before an impartial court of law.
After six months in a crowded cell with 20 Turkish prisoners also accused of Gülen links, Brunson was moved to the maximum security Kiriklar Prison in Izmir, where he has shared a cell with two Turkish prisoners.
He is allowed to leave his cell once a week for a scheduled visit with his wife or a US consular officer.
According to two US representatives who visited him in October on behalf of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, “He is the only American, the only English speaker, and the only Christian in the prison. He lives in a world of physical isolation and psychological dislocation.”
During his incarceration, he has missed his daughter’s wedding, and then her university graduation.
In late September, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan publicly declared that his government was holding Brunson as a political hostage, demanding that the US extradite Gülen back to Turkey in a prisoner “swap” for the pastor. Turkey insists that the evidence it has sent to the US proves that the cleric planned and orchestrated the coup attempt.
President Erdoğan declared further on 11 January that “as long as I hold office”, Turkey will not extradite any jailed “suspects” to the United States until Washington hands over Gülen. If Erdoğan persists, he will effectively cancel a 1979 extradition treaty between the US and Turkey on criminal matters.
Arrested at the age of 48, Brunson had raised his family and ministered in Turkey for 23 years. On 3 January, he spent his 50th birthday in his cell.
“We would never have imagined this kind of a birthday,” a close family member said. “Andrew did what he set out to do: he thanked God for the life he has had.”
As indicated in his only photograph from his imprisonment, Brunson has lost more than 50 pounds (20kg), becoming a pale, slender version of himself.