Turkish prosecutors presented charges on Thursday against U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been kept in pretrial detention for ten months.
Turkish authorities accused Mr. Brunson of “attempting to overthrow the Turkish government, Turkish Parliament, attempting to topple the constitutional order, obtaining classified military secrets to share with third countries, [and] abetting a terrorist organization.”
The American pastor, who had served in Turkey for more than 23 years, now faces four aggravated life sentences, the pro-government Takvim daily reported on Thursday. He was transferred to a maximum security prison in Buca district of Izmir after the hearing this week.
The office of Izmir Chief Public Prosecutor waited for an extensive intelligence report by Izmir Police Department on Mr. Brunson to lay out formal charges.
U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Washington continues to advocate for the release of the pastor.
“He has been wrongfully imprisoned in Turkey…We take this issue very seriously,” she said at a press briefing on Thursday.
Ms. Nauert noted that since Pastor Brunson’s arrest last October, U.S. consular officers have visited him regularly. The State Department press office told The Globe Post that U.S. authorities continue to provide appropriate consular services to Mr. Brunson and his family.
Mr. Brunson’s imprisonment remains a sore point in relations between Washington and Ankara. During Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s visit to Washington, D.C., in May, his American counterpart Donald J. Trump urged him to release the pastor. However, his request has gone unheeded.
In June, the Turkish leader publicly rejected President Trump’s plea for the release of Mr. Brunson. He conditioned the U.S. pastor’s freedom on mutual reciprocity and said Turkey would only agree to the American demand if the Turkish requests are fulfilled.
Turkey’s demands include the extradition of cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused by Ankara of orchestrating the failed 2016 putsch, the release of Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, who stands trial for breaching U.S. sanctions against Iran, and the end of U.S. cooperation with the Syrian Kurdish militia.
“The charges are themselves are absurd,” Howard Eissenstat, associate professor of history and a Turkish affairs expert at St. Lawrence University, told The Globe Post.
“Targeting foreigners has become part of Turkey’s strategy for pressuring Western powers. Although the Trump administration has prioritized the Brunson case, there are many Americans detained.”
According to Western officials and observers, Turkey now uses foreign citizens and journalists as hostages and bargaining chips in diplomatic dealings with the Western world.
“Earlier this year President Erdogan himself said: If we don’t get people we want, you don’t get the people you request,” Mr. Eissenstat, who is also a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), said.
“The Zarrab case is one of the several possible reasons for targeting Brunson with these absurd charges.”
The Zarrab case came to media spotlight last month when former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric S. Edelman, in an op-ed he co-authored with Merve Tahiroglu for The Washington Post, urged the Trump administration to refuse a prisoner swap with Ankara. Turkey demands freedom of Reza Zarrab in return for the release of the U.S. Pastor.
The most tragic part of such approach is that Turkey, an important partner of the West, is now joining the likes of the Islamic Republic of Iran and North Korea by adopting a hostage diplomacy against its close allies, Mr. Eissenstat noted.