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Turkish court denies request to release pastor from Black Mountain
The Rev. Andrew Brunson, who has family in Black Mountain and has been supported by Christ Community Church in Montreat, has been jailed in Turkey since October on charges of associating with a terrorist organization. Mark Barrett
BLACK MOUNTAIN – A Turkish court on Wednesday dashed hopes an American missionary with Black Mountain ties might be released during his trial on charges of aiding terror groups and engaging in espionage continues.
Pastor Andrew Brunson has been imprisoned since October 2016 and denies the charges against him.
His attorney had said before Wednesday's proceedings that Brunson might be released, and at least one Turkish journalist suggested Turkey might drop charges altogether to remove a sticking point in relations with the United States.
The U.S. Senate has moved to link Brunson's fate to delivery of fighter jets to Turkey. The Trump administration has pushed for Brunson's release, but has also opposed congressional efforts to block the jet sales.
At the end of the third hearing in Brunson's trial, 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 trial began with a one-day hearing April 16, recessed until another one-day hearing in May then recessed again until Wednesday.
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."
"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," Kosnett said.
Brunson grew up the son of missionaries overseas and spent time in Black Mountain when he was young. Several members of his family, including his parents, live in the Swannanoa Valley today.
He 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.
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 supporters, including some U.S. government officials, say charges against him are absurd and that Turkey is trying to use Brunson as a bargaining chip to get concessions on other issues from the U.S.
Those concerns and others prompted the Senate to adopt language in an annual defense policy bill to block a planned sale of 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets until the Trump administration produces a report on how Turkey can be removed from the supply chain for the jet. The bill specifically cites the Brunson case.
However, Trump's budget director wrote a leading senator Friday asking that the language be removed during House-Senate negotiations over a final version of the bill, several media accounts say.
“The administration shares the Congress’s concerns over recent Turkish actions but opposes language that preemptively restricts its ability to work with Turkey to address those concerns,” Budget Director Mick Mulvaney wrote Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Mulvaney noted that Turkey is a NATO ally.
Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has increasingly consolidated power in his hands in recent years as civil rights in the country decline, appear to have a warm personal relationship.
Brunson's case was among issues Trump and Erdogan reportedly discussed by telephone earlier this week.
Four U.S. senators, including Thom Tillis, R-N.C., released a statement later Wednesday calling for Brunson's release. It says his imprisonment is "causing tremendous hardship and heartache for him and his family. He is an innocent man and has been unlawfully detained simply because he is an American pastor who assists all those in need, no matter their ethnicity or religious beliefs."
"We encourage the (Trump) Administration to use all the tools at their disposal to ensure the release of these innocent people before Congress is forced to press for even stricter legislative measures that will be difficult to unwind,” the statement says. It also refers to Serkan Golge, a Turkish-American NASA scientist imprisoned despite what the U.S. government says is a lack of evidence.
Other signatories are Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; James Lankford, R-Okla.; and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. Graham and Shaheen pressed for Brunson's release in a meeting with Erdogan in Turkey earlier this month and Tillis attended the first day of Brunson's trial.
Brunson faces up to 35 years in prison for "committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member" and "espionage." He strongly denies the charges. Gulen has denied involvement in the coup attempt.
Brunson served as pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, a small Protestant congregation in southwestern Turkey, and has lived in the country 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 Associated Press contributed to this report.