Andrew Brunson: Turkey's Erdogan Says He Can't Release American Pastor Held on Terrorism Charges

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it was not for him to decide on the freedom of Pastor Andrew Brunson, an evangelical Christian American held in the country on terrorism charges since 2016.

Brunson has lived in Turkey for over two decades and is a pastor at the Izmir Diriliş (Resurrection) Church in Izmir.

Erdogan's comments come as a rebuke to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had suggested Brunson, 50, may be released from Turkish prison within days.

The U.S. government says Brunson is held on secret evidence from a secret witness and he is not being given due process.

The Turkish authorities accuse Brunson of involvement with a movement led by cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in the U.S.

Turkey wants Gulen to be extradited, accusing him of masterminding a failed coup against Erdogan in July 2016. Gulen denies the accusation.

Brunson is seen by the American government and human rights groups as a pawn in Turkey’s diplomatic war with Washington.

He faces life in prison if convicted of the terrorism charges against him. Currently, he is under house arrest.

“This is a judiciary matter. Brunson has been detained on terrorism charges,” Erdogan told Reuters at the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

"On 12 October there will be another hearing and we don’t know what the court will decide and politicians will have no say on the verdict. As the president, I don’t have the right to order his release. Our judiciary is independent. Let’s wait and see what the court will decide."

According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Brunson applied to renew his residence visa in April 2016. When in October that year he was invited to the local police station, he assumed it would be to discuss his visa.

But he was detained and threatened with deportation, the beginning of an ordeal that has lasted almost two years.

The U.S. accuses Turkey of initially denying Brunson access to a lawyer or a meeting with a representative from the consulate, and holding him in a small cell with 21 other inmates for 24 hours a day.

A State Department spokesperson told Newsweek the U.S. government is closely following Brunson's case and is now supporting him with consular services.

They said the highest levels of the administration are engaged on Brunson’s case and those of other American citizens and local employees of the U.S. Mission in Turkey detained on scant evidence under the state of emergency, declared after the coup attempt. 

The U.S. government's position is that the cases are dragging on too long and their swift resolution is essential to improving the strained bilateral relations with Turkey.

As well as the Gulen spat, Washington and Turkey are locked in a trade war, one of many launched by President Donald Trump.

The Turkish lira has collapsed against the dollar and the economy is struggling.

Trump recently doubled U.S. tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium. Turkey responded with levies on American goods including cars and tobacco.

“Turkey is clearly feeling the economic consequences of falsely imprisoning Pastor Brunson," Kristina Arriaga, vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told Newsweek in a statement. 

"And while President Erdogan is here in New York trying to convince U.S. businesses to invest in his country, we’re suggesting that the lack of rule of law and deteriorating human rights in Turkey are serious causes for concern and do not make for a stable business environment.”

President Trump has personally taken up the plight of Brunson.

In April, Trump tweeted that Brunson was being “persecuted” by Turkey “for no reason.” In July, he accused Turkey of holding Brunson as a “hostage.”

Later that month, Trump threatened Turkey in a tweet: “The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being. He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!”

GettyImages-1040029452 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the 73rd United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly on September 25 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This article was updated with commentary by the State Department and Kristina Arriaga.

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