Trial of US pas­tor ac­cused of es­pi­onage be­gins

Daily Sabah (Turkey) - - Front Page -

THE TRIAL of An­drew Craig Brun­son, an Amer­i­can pas­tor who ran a church in the Aegean prov­ince of İzmir, be­gan yes­ter­day where he is ac­cused of es­pi­onage and links to the PKK and FETÖ ter­ror­ist groups.

AN­DREW Craig Brun­son, an Amer­i­can pas­tor run­ning a church in west­ern Tur­key, made his first ap­pear­ance be­fore a court yes­ter­day in a trial closely watched by the me­dia and Wash­ing­ton. The pas­tor, held on ter­ror charges for his links to the PKK and the Gülenist Ter­ror Group (FETÖ) blamed for the 2016 coup at­tempt, clung to de­nial in his de­fense, while a U.S. of­fi­cial watch­ing the trial, brazenly threat­ened Tur­key. Sam Brown­back, the am­bas­sador-at-large for In­ter­na­tional Re­li­gious Free­dom, told re­porters out­side the court­house that al­though the United States cares “deeply” about re­la­tion with Tur­key, re­la­tions would have a dif­fi­culty mov­ing for­ward as long as Brun­son is in jail.

As Brun­son’s lawyer told Agence FrancePresse (AFP) that there was no use in push­ing this case on po­lit­i­cal grounds, Brown­back said the U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion, from Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump down, wanted to see the case re­solved and see Brun­son “re­leased.”

The case of Brun­son, who was a pas­tor at the Dir­iliş (Res­ur­rec­tion) Protes­tant church in Izmir, is a thorny is­sue be­tween Ankara and Wash­ing­ton. Wash­ing­ton has re­peated- ly called for the re­lease of Brun­son, claim­ing he was “un­justly de­tained.” For­mer U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son was the last high-rank­ing U.S. of­fi­cial to de­mand his re­lease dur­ing a visit to Tur­key in Fe­bru­ary, a de­mand seen by lo­cal of­fi­cials as dis­re­spect to­wards the in­de­pen­dence of the Turk­ish ju­di­ciary. The Turk­ish gov­ern­ment has re­peat­edly told Wash­ing­ton that Brun­son’s case is be­ing han­dled by the courts and the gov­ern­ment can­not in­ter­vene.

The pas­tor, im­pris­oned in the city of İzmir where he served as a pas­tor in Protes­tant Dir­iliş (Res­ur­rec­tion) Church, is ac­cused of es­pi­onage and aid­ing two ter­ror groups, charges car­ry­ing up to 35 years in prison.

In his first ap­pear­ance be­fore the court in İzmir’s Ali­ağa district, the pas­tor, in flu­ent Turk­ish, de­nied all charges against him, in­clud­ing his al­leged con­tact with Bekir Baz, a se­nior mem­ber of FETÖ. Only a few days ago, re­ports said that lo­cal law en­force­ment of­fi­cers fol­low­ing up on the case un­cov­ered new ev­i­dence of con­tact be­tween Brun­son and the top FETÖ of­fi­cial in the re­gion, Bekir Baz. While Brun­son re­jects claims that he ever met Baz, inves- tiga­tions into both in­di­vid­u­als GSM sig­nals showed that they were at the same place or at least very close to each other on 293 oc­ca­sions. Baz cur­rently re­mains a fugi­tive from the law. Brun­son was ar­rested in 2016 af­ter a secret wit­ness in a crim­i­nal probe into FETÖ tes­ti­fied against him, while au­thor­i­ties were pre­par­ing to de­port Brun­son and his wife Norine Lyn for “in­volve­ment in ac­tions threat­en­ing na­tional se­cu­rity.” The in­dict­ment un­der­lined the pas­tor’s links to the ter­ror­ist group and his fre­quent con­tacts with Baz, a fugi­tive point man for FETÖ in the Aegean re­gion, his aide Mu­rat Safa and Amnesty Tur­key Branch Ex­ec­u­tive Taner Kılıç, who is also be­ing ac­cused of aid­ing FETÖ. Baz, one of the group’s point men who had ties to Brun­son, is be­lieved to be in the U.S. af­ter he fled Tur­key in 2015 one year be­fore the coup at­tempt. He man­aged to run away at a time of height­ened crack­downs against the ter­ror­ist group. Baz was al­legedly a co­or­di­na­tor of the group’s ac­tiv­i­ties in Izmir where Gülen made him­self a name as a charis­matic preacher in the 1970s. He re­port­edly black­mailed and threat­ened lo­cal of­fi­cials to work for the group’s in­ter­ests, ac­cord­ing to crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

At one point, Brun­son said it was against his faith to be a mem­ber of “an Is­lamic group” in ref­er­ence to FETÖ, which is known for dis­guis­ing it­self as a re­li­gious char­ity move­ment. He claimed he did not do any­thing against Tur­key.

Asked about his mes­sage to an Amer­i­can sol­dier six days af­ter the 2016 coup at­tempt blamed on mil­i­tary in­fil­tra­tors by FETÖ, Brun­son said the mes­sage was meant to be re­li­gious. The mes­sage, as trans­lated into Turk­ish by the court, quotes Brun­son say­ing, “Things will get worse, we will win in the end.” The de­fen­dant said he was sim­ply as­sess­ing the sit­u­a­tion. “It is some­thing spir­i­tual. I was re­fer­ring to the fact that God can cre­ate mir­a­cles when peo­ple are shaken and chal­lenged. ‘ Us’ here is mankind in gen­eral,” he said.

The in­dict­ment also charged Brun­son with con­duct­ing sys­tem­atic ef­forts that tar­geted Kur­dish cit­i­zens and with found­ing the “Kur­dish Church of the Mes­siah,” where only Kurds are ad­mit­ted. There is also ev­i­dence show­ing Brun­son with PKK flags and sym­bols, it said, adding that Brun­son fre­quently vis­ited Ayn al-Arab, also known as Kobani, in north­ern Syria, which is con­trolled by the PKK’s Syr­ian off­shoot the Demo­cratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units (YPG), and Tur­key’s Su­ruç district in south­east­ern Şan­lıurfa prov­ince across the bor­der. Brun­son also took part in or­ga­niz­ing the 2013 Gezi Park ri­ots, the in­dict­ment ac­cused, claim­ing that he was in pos­ses­sion of lists con­tain­ing the names of “gas sta­tion work­ers in Tur­key’s south­east,” “rail­way em­ploy­ees,” or “sol­diers to get in con­tact with,” with whom he ex­changed in­for­ma­tion through close con­tacts. In yes­ter­day’s hear­ing, the pas­tor dis­missed al­le­ga­tions as “lies.”

The in­dict­ment also noted that the sus­pect was charged with be­ing in con­tact with re­tired sol­diers, spe­cial war­fare of­fi­cers and high-rank­ing lead­ers of the PKK and FETÖ, which is un­der­stood through two secret and five open wit­ness state­ments, along with ev­i­dence such as dig­i­tal data, doc­u­ments, phone con­ver­sa­tion and wire­less tower records pro­vided by Brun­son him­self, wit­nesses and au­thor­i­ties.

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