Friday's trial that concluded in Turkey's release of American Pastor Andrew Brunson was an emotional rollercoaster for not only Brunson and his wife, Norine, but also for those in attendance.
Although Brunson was convicted on terror charges that he flatly denies and was sentenced to 3.1 years in prison, the North Carolina native who has served as a pastor in Izmir for the past two decades, is now headed back to the U.S. after his travel ban was lifted and he was released on time served after having already spent over two years in prison.
Although Brunson's supporters who huddled into the old gymnasium-turned-courtroom in Aliaga rejoiced when they heard the court's decision to release the emotionally-battered minister at around 3:30 p.m., that came after serious fear struck Brunson and his supporters when it appeared earlier in the day that Brunson would likely be sent back to jail.
Two attendees at the hearing — a conservative religious freedom lobbyist and a pastor — spoke to The Christian Post about what they saw in the courtroom Friday.
In the following pages are five things that occurred during Brunson's final court hearing.
1. "Significant weakening" of the prosecution's case
As human rights activists and United States lawmakers have criticized the Turkish court for lacking due process and for using implausible testimony against Brunson in his first three court hearings, a defense witness was allowed to speak in defense of Brunson on Friday.
According to Travis Weber, vice president of policy at the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Family Research Council, this was the first time a defense witness was allowed to testify on Brunson's behalf.
The prosecution alleges that Brunson has connections to Kurdish militants and an Islamic terrorist group blamed for the 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan's government. Brunson is one of about two dozen Americans who've been arrested after the coup attempt.
In addition to allowing a defense witness to testify, Weber told reporters on Friday that new witnesses brought forth by the prosecution "contradicted previous witness statements and previous testimony."
"This led to testimony being discarded by the prosecutor and by the court," Weber, who took notes at the hearing as it occurred, explained. "In addition, a defense witness was allowed to testify for the first time. This evidence added to the significant weakening of the prosecution's case."
New York City Pastor Bill Devlin, who has attended all four of Brunson's hearings, told CP that the witnesses called by the prosecution were "bogus witnesses" who only provided second or even third-hand accounts of claims against Brunson.
2. Turkish prosecutor presses to send Brunson back to jail
After the hearing broken for lunch around 12:30 p.m., the proceedings resumed around 1:30 p.m. Around 2 p.m., the prosecutor re-read Brunson's lengthy indictment.
According to Devlin, it took the prosecutor about 45 minutes to an hour to re-read the document.
Weber explained that after the indictment was read, Brunson proclaimed yet again that he is innocent and referred to his defense lawyer, Cem Halavurt. Halavurt cited previous court filings and noted that Brunson "has just served as a pastor [of Izmir Resurrection Church] and argued that evidence has not shown Brunson to be guilty of associating with terrorists or terror groups.
Despite the fact that the prosecutor had to throw out some testimony, Devlin and Weber both explained that the prosecutor still recommended to the three-judge panel that Brunson be remanded back to prison. The prosecutor also listed the sentences Devlin should receive for each crime.
"The big one was supporting a terrorist organization, which was the PKK and the YPG," Devlin said. "So then the head judge recessed the court for 15 minutes."
3. Brunson's "silent tears"
After hearing the prosecutor's recommendation, Brunson was said to have broke down into "silent tears."
"At one point when he's looking back toward Norine and us who were sitting in the back, he just broke down in silent tears. You could tell he was shaking a bit and looking down. I was struck by it myself," Weber explained. "You really got the impression of how much it has affected him in observing his composure in the courtroom."
Even though Devlin, Weber and the other onlookers were sitting in the very back of the room, Devlin said it was clear that Brunson was "visibly crying."
"He was wiping his eyes with a handkerchief because at this point, nobody had any idea, but it didn't look real good," Devlin said. "It looked like he was going to go back to prison based on what the prosecutor said."
As judges ordered a 15-minute recess around 3 p.m. after the prosecutor finished his plea to send Brunson back to prison, Devlin said that he was able to walk half way up the courtroom and stand about 30 feet from Brunson. Devlin vowed to Brunson that he would serve any sentence received in Brunson's place.
"He said, 'Pastor Devlin, I know you.' I said, 'If you go to jail today, you tell the judge that I am ready right now to be your replacement for you to be released and I will go in and serve out whatever sentence they give you. I am ready. My family is ready,'" Devlin recalled telling Brunson. "He chuckled a little bit as he was wiping his eyes."
Devlin, who serves the Infinity Bible Church in the Bronx, also travels the world to support persecuted believers. He told CP that he has asked Christians on every continent to pray for Brunson.
4. Wife's embrace
During the 15-minute recess, Norine and her husband were able to embrace in an emotional hug that lasted for about five minutes, according to Devlin.
"It was the picture of the trial," Devlin said. "They just embraced one another. It was just an emotional time. Everybody was standing and was just thick with emotion looking at those two just hugging each other."
After the 15-minute recess ended, the judges announced their decision.
"We were shell shocked. Through our translators, we learned the judge said, 'Pastor Brunson is guilty. We sentenced him to 3.1 years but he has been in prison for two years and a week. Time served. The travel ban is lifted. We are releasing you. You are free to go. Court dismissed,'" Devlin recalled.
Devlin said the hearing ended so abruptly that he and the other American supporters didn't understand what happened until they got into the courthouse parking lot and were able to talk with interpreters.
Other Americans who attended the hearing included North Carolina Pastor Richard White of Christ Community Church in Montreat, North Carolina; and FRC President Tony Perkins, a commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
5. Turkish pastors not allowed in courtroom during morning session
Devlin and Weber both noted that a group of Turkish pastors who were there to support Brunson were not allowed into the hearing during the morning session and were told by security to wait until they are called to go into the hearing.
According to Devlin, two of the Turkish pastors wanted to testify on Brunson's behalf.
"There was a huge crowd trying to get in. There were a [few] Americans, it was the Turkish media, international media, Turkish diplomats and Turkish pastors. At one point, at 10 a.m. this morning, they let in the diplomat's and some of the media," Devlin said. "Then they said to everybody, 'Go back, you are going to be called to come in.' Well, when everybody was streaming out, I went in."
Although a police officer tried to stop Devlin from going in, Devlin insisted and the officer didn't put up much of an argument.
Although the Turkish pastors were prevented from attending the morning session, it was not due to a lack of space in the courtroom.
"The courtroom was very large and it is an converted gym of some type. It is almost funny how much empty seating there was in the middle," Weber detailed. "We were way in the back on a bleacher-type setup with chairs. The judges were up front and the prosecutors were sitting alongside the judges, which is quite unusual for us. The defense attorney [was] on the side, not next to Pastor Brunson, so he could not confer with him during the proceedings."
"It was a very large room, pretty empty," Weber continued. "It was very odd because there seemed to see a glimpse of professionalism in some ways that were happening. The room was modern and had technology. On surface, it seemed well run but when you really contrast that with the way this case was run in terms of the fairness of the trial and the presentation of witnesses and evidence and the conclusions, it really is huge contrast with the surface picture that one got."
FRC said Brunson left on a flight Friday back to the U.S. with Perkins.