Muslim Times (Web Desk) – A court in Turkey has ruled to keep an American Protestant cleric in custody during his trial over charges of support for terrorist groups, citing concerns that he is a flight risk.
The court, in Turkey’s western city of Izmir ruled in the first hearing session of Pastor Andrew Brunson’s trial on Monday that he be remanded in custody.
Brunson, who operated a Protestant church in Izmir, has been charged with support for groups designated as terrorist by Ankara, namely a movement headed by a US-based Turkish cleric and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The American pastor has been in jail since October 2016 and faces up to 35 years in jail if convicted on charges of engaging in activities on behalf of the US-based Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen — whom Ankara accuses of engineering a 2016 coup attempt against the government — as well as the PKK militant group.
Brunson is also accused of espionage for political or military objectives.
Speaking fluent Turkish and occasionally bursting into tears, Brunson categorically denied all the charges against him at the opening session of his trial in the town of Aliaga, north of Izmir.
Rejecting alleged links with Gulen’s group, he told the court, “That would be an insult to my religion. I am a Christian. I would not join an Islamic movement.”
“I haven’t done anything against Turkey. On the contrary, I love Turkey. I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years,” added the American preacher, who moved to Turkey in 1993 and opened his Izmir church in 2010.
The judge ordered Brunson to stay in jail anyway, setting the next hearing for May 7.
There have been tensions between NATO allies the US and Turkey over America’s refusal to hand over Gulen to Turkey. The US says there is no substantial evidence against the cleric to warrant his repatriation.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested last September that Ankara could free Brunson if Washington handed over Gulen, who lives in the US state of Pennsylvania.
Reacting to the Monday court ruling, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “We have seen no credible evidence that Mr. Brunson is guilty of a crime and are convinced that he is innocent.”
“We hope that the judicial system in Turkey will resolve his case in a timely, fair and transparent manner,” she added.
US President Donald Trump has reportedly raised the issue of Brunson’s case in talks with Erdogan.
Ties also remain strained over American support for a Syria-based Kurdish militia group that Ankara believes is linked to the PKK, as well as the detention of two employees at American missions in Turkey.
“That relationship is going to have difficulty in moving forward as long as Andrew Brunson is incarcerated,” said US Ambassador at large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, who attended Brunson’s court hearing along with American Senator Thom Tillis from the preacher’s home state of North Carolina.
“We are very disappointed. If anything, I think the information that has been presented today creates a more compelling reason why he is innocent,” Tillis told reporters following the court ruling.