WASHINGTON — North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis on Wednesday shared more details about Turkey's case against imprisoned American Pastor Andrew Brunson and slammed prosecutors for claiming that churches in the United States are conspiring to undermine the Turkish government.
Speaking at a Capitol Hill briefing addressing the human rights situation in the NATO ally country, Tillis decried the charges against Brunson and pointed out flaws in the prosecution's case.
Tillis, a Republican, has been actively involved in advocating on behalf of Brunson, a resident of North Carolina who's spent the last two decades ministering in Turkey before he was arrested in October 2016 and slapped with trumped-up terrorism charges about 17 months later.
The Turkish government claims that Brunson is connected to the Islamic Gulen movement, which it accuses of being involved in a July 2016 coup attempt against the administration of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Brunson is also accused of being involved with the Kurdistan Workers Party. Brunson has denied all claims against him.
As the prosecution's case against Brunson has been based on the testimony of "secret witnesses," Tillis saw firsthand the prosecution's arguments against Brunson when he traveled to Izmir in April to witness the first court hearing against the pastor. A second hearing was held earlier this month in which Brunson was remanded back to prison until another hearing scheduled for July.
"What I saw in that courtroom was just absurd — the secret witnesses," Tillis said.
In his speech, Tillis mentioned briefly a document put forth by the prosecution "that says that churches in America are somehow woven together so that they can go to other countries and disrupt and overthrow governments, [and] that they are an intelligence gathering resource."
"This is serious allegations put forth by the prosecution and I don't think I'm embellishing anything," Tillis explained. "These are the facts."
While there are several accusations against Brunson, Tillis focused on and refuted claims made by an alleged secret witness who mentioned "observing a light in a room in a small church in Izmir."
Tillis blasted the prosecution's assertion that a witness seeing a light on in a church window for four hours can be used as evidence to charge someone with acts of terrorism.
"[There are] two problems with that," the senator said. "In [the U.S.], having a light on doesn't necessarily suggest you are doing something wrong. The other problem with that is that his room doesn't have a window."
Tillis added that what makes him sad about the Brunson ordeal is that it involves a NATO ally that the U.S. has had since 1952.
"By and large, we have our differences in NATO. It's like brothers and sisters. If any of you have brothers and sisters, you might fight sometime but at the end of the day, you support the family," Tillis said. "The family of nations of NATO generally do not treat the citizens of nations in the manner that Pastor Brunson is being treated."
Tillis also mentioned the case of a Turkish-American NASA scientist who was sentenced to over seven years in prison earlier this year on terrorism charges.
Tillis said that Turkey might be the first NATO nation to unjustly arrest citizens of another NATO nation.
"I am not a NATO historian, but I am pretty sure this is the first time in the history of NATO that any nation has done this," he said.
During his time as North Carolina's Speaker of the House, Tillis visited leaders in Turkey in 2013. He said he left Turkey with real optimism that the country was on a "positive track" when it comes to human rights.
"The Turkey that I returned to about two months ago couldn't be further from the Turkey that I visited in 2013, whether it has to do with the freedom of the press and whether it has to do with the optimism of business leaders," Tillis explained.
At the briefing, human rights activists warned about the deteriorating human rights conditions in the country.
According to In Defense of Christians — a nonprofit dedicated to protecting persecuted believers across the Middle East — over 65,000 people have been arrested since the government began its crackdown following the coup attempt of 2016, including at least 319 journalists.
In addition, over 152,000 people have been dismissed from their jobs through government decrees.
At least 5,822 academics have lost their jobs and over 4,400 judges and prosecutors have been dismissed.
IDC reports that detainees claim to have been denied food, water, and medical treatment. Also, detainees claim to have been subjected to physical torture.
As for the Brunsons, Tillis said that they traveled back to North Carolina for a visit following the coup attempt in 2016. Despite the government's emergency crackdown, the Brunsons decided to travel back to Turkey and even applied for permanent residence.
"That gives a sense that how [over] the 20 years they have been in Turkey, they connected to the Turkish people and the Turkish culture and wanted to be a part of it," Tillis said. "So they traveled back. Then, they were asked to come down to what they thought was a discussion about the permanent residence certificate and they were put in jail. Pastor Brunson hasn't been released since then."
While Norine Brunson was released from jail after 12 days, her husband was held for 17 months before he was charged.
Many believe that Brunson is a political prisoner held as part of a hostage diplomacy. Erdogan has previously indicated that Brunson might be released if the U.S. extradites the leader of the Gulen movement who lives in Pennsylvania.
"Every time I do this speech I promised my wife and I promised myself that I am not going to get angry over the course of the speech," Tillis said. "Quite honestly, I have failed every single time that I have talked about this because it is so frustrating."
Tillis has joined a bipartisan group of over 60 other senators in calling on the Turkish government to release Brunson in a letter sent to Erdogan in April.