US Pastor Andrew Brunson Faces 35 Years in Turkish Prison

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends an interview with Reuters at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, April 25, 2017.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends an interview with Reuters at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, April 25, 2017. | (Photo: REUTERS/Umit Bektas)

A Turkish court has accepted an indictment that seeks 35 years in prison for American Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was arrested in December 2016 on allegedly false charges of espionage and terrorism, according to a report.

The Second High Penal Court in the Aegean province of Izmir has accepted the indictment written by the Public Prosecutor's Office, which demands up to 15 years in prison for crimes in the name of the Gulen movement and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, and up to 20 years for obtaining state secrets for political or military espionage, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency.

The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan holds the banned group responsible for the failed coup against state institutions in July 2016.

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Pastor Brunson, a North Carolina native who has led a small congregation in Izmir for the past two decades, has denied the charges.

Based off testimony from a secret witness who has not been revealed, Brunson was accused of obtaining secret documents related to the goal of espionage and overthrowing the government.

Rights advocates believe that Brunson was arrested in an attempt to force the U.S. government to extradite Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who resides in Pennsylvania.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom earlier this month condemned the charges against Brunson.

USCIRF Vice Chairs Kristina Arriaga and Sandra Jolley said in a joint statement, "The government of Turkey has detained Pastor Brunson largely based on a purported 'secret witness' and secret evidence which they refuse to make public. The Turkish government should reverse course immediately and we urge the international community to condemn this indictment."

Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for Brunson's release during a meeting in Ankara last month.

Last May, President Donald Trump also pushed for Brunson's release during a meeting with Erdogan.

But last September, Erdogan indicated that the fate of Brunson relied on the U.S. government's willingness to hand over Gulen.

Brunson has been in custody since October 2016. Initially, the pastor and his wife, Norine, were detained on immigration violation charges. Norine was released.

USCIRF is calling on the U.S. government and Congress to utilize all their options to pressure Turkey, a NATO member, to release Brunson — even if it means imposing sanctions.

"USCIRF urges President Trump and others in the administration to redouble their ongoing efforts to secure Pastor Brunson's release. No stone should be left unturned in our efforts on behalf of this unjustly imprisoned American. We call again for his immediate release and, if this is not forthcoming, for the administration and Congress to impose targeted sanctions against those involved in this miscarriage of justice."

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