Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim is seen with aides as he spoke at a luncheon with U.S. reporters at Cankaya Palace, his executive office building, in Ankara, Turkey, on March 9, 2017.(Photo: Oren Dorell, USA TODAY)
ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey will consider speeding up the trial for an American pastor swept up in a crackdown after an attempted military coup last July, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Thursday.
“What we can do at this stage is accelerate the trial” for Andrew Brunson, who was detained on Oct. 7 for allegedly threatening national security, Yildirim told a group of American journalists visiting Turkey’s capital. “As you will appreciate, judiciary matters are not directly controlled by us.”
Brunson, who has lived in Turkey with his family for 23 years, has yet to be provided evidence to support the charge, said CeCe Heil, a lawyer for the American Center for Law and Justice, which is assisting with his legal defense. The North Carolina native is pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church in Turkey.
When asked about Brunson, Yildirim expressed frustration that the United States has not extradited to Turkey exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused by the government here of orchestrating the coup attempt. Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, has denied any involvement in the uprising.
The Obama administration did not turn Gulen over to Turkish authorities, saying he must go through a judicial process and Turkey must provide clear evidence of his involvement in the coup plot.
In this July 17, 2016 file photo, Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen speaks to members of the media at his compound in Saylorsburg, Pa. (Photo: Chris Post, AP)
“I’m not establishing a connection between the two cases, but such an incident of a large scale was not taken seriously by the Obama administration,” Yildirim said, speaking through a translator. “They stalled for time, yet we had hundreds killed and thousands injured” in the coup attempt.
In a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the law center representing Brunson said Turkey’s arrest of tens of thousands of suspected coup sympathizers “swept up innocent religious minorities, especially Christians, in an ever-widening dragnet.”
“Here we have a NATO ally and they pride themselves for having the rule of law and religious freedom,” Heil said.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote a letter signed by 36 other senators and 41 members of the House of Representatives urging Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to consider Brunson’s case. Brunson’s treatment “places significant strain not only on him and his family, but also on the robust bilateral relationship between the United States and Turkey,” Corker wrote.
Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., who represents the district where Brunson went to college, said in an interview that “Turkey is a NATO ally and historically important to us," but added, "Is there a limit? Yes.”
Heil said Brunson was ordered to appear for deportation in Izmir, the coastal town where he lives, but when he showed up, he was detained instead.
He was later transferred to another location and given a court hearing, but his lawyer had only one hour’s notice to prepare, and the charge was changed to membership in an armed terrorist organization, Heil said. The center’s lawyers have reviewed with Brunson’s wife all of his contacts and meetings leading up to the coup and since, and found nothing that could be considered suspicious, she said.
“We have gone through everything and there is just nothing there,” she said. “If you widen the spectrum, as a pastor he doesn’t know every single person who walks through the doors of his church, but he doesn’t have any ties to any political organization or any terrorist organization.”
“The attorney has been told there’s a secret witness, but we don’t know anything about that," Heil said. We really don’t know what they’re basing this on, and it’s hard to prepare a defense,” she said.
Heil worries that Brunson will be held as a hostage for Gulen, whose extradition must go through the U.S. court system before any political decision can be made by the State Department or President Trump.
Yildirim called that idea “nonsensical."
These matters are separate,” he said.