ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A Turkish court on Wednesday again denied a request for the release from custody of an American pastor based in Turkey who is on trial on charges of aiding terror groups and engaging espionage.
Andrew Craig Brunson, a 50-year-old evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina, was arrested in the aftermath of a 2016 coup attempt for alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, as well as a network led by U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey blames for the unrest.
Brunson, who faces up to 35 years in prison for “committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member” and “espionage,” strongly denies the charges. Gulen has denied involvement in the coup attempt.
At the end of the third hearing, the court inside a prison complex in the town of Aliaga in western Turkey rejected Brunson’s lawyer’s request that he be freed pending the outcome of the trial. The case was adjourned until Oct. 12.
Brunson’s case has added to already strained Turkish-U.S. relations, with some U.S. politicians calling for sanctions against Turkey if Brunson is not released.
U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted in Brunson’s defense Wednesday night, calling it “a total disgrace” that Brunson is being held. “He has done nothing wrong, and his family needs him!”
Brunson’s case was among issues Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed by telephone earlier this week.
Speaking to reporters at the end of the hearing, the United States’ top diplomat in Turkey expressed disappointment.
“I have read the indictment. I have attended three hearings. I don’t believe there is any indication that Pastor Brunson is guilty of any sort of criminal or terrorist activity,” said Philip Kosnett, the U.S. Embassy charge d’affaires. “Our government remains deeply concerned about his status.”
Kosnett added: “We have great faith in the commitment of the Turkish people to justice and will follow this case closely and hope that Pastor Brunson is reunited with his family soon.”
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert reiterated the administration’s call for Brunson to be released.
“We believe he is innocent,” Nauert said. “We continue to call on the Turkish government to quickly resolve this case in a timely and transparent and fair manner.”
During the hearing, Brunson rejected evidence against him given by two witnesses, who have not been named and who claimed the pastor supported Kurdish militants, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.
“I believe in and support Turkey’s territorial integrity,” the agency quoted Brunson as telling the court. “I forgive those who lie and bear false witness against me.”
Brunson served as pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, a small Protestant congregation, and has lived in Turkey for 23 years.
Prosecutors are seeking a 15-year prison sentence for crimes Brunson is charged with committing in the name of Gulen’s group and the PKK. They want the pastor to serve another 20 years if he also is found guilty of obtaining state secrets for political and military spying purposes, using his religious work as cover.
The indictment against him — based on the testimony of witnesses, including three secret ones, and digital evidence — claims the pastor worked to convert Kurds to Christianity to sow discord in Turkey.