Trump is trying to free NC pastor, but 'wild conspiracies' keep him in Turkish prison

Trump is trying to free NC pastor, but 'wild conspiracies' keep him in Turkish prison
Pastor Andrew Brunson (U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom)

NORTH CAROLINA (Joe Marusak/Charlotte Observer) - A North Carolina pastor whom President Donald Trump is trying to free landed back in a Turkish prison after a court hearing full of "wild conspiracies" and secret witnesses, a U.S. official said Monday.

The Rev. Andrew Brunson, a Protestant pastor from Black Mountain, was even barred from presenting witnesses in his defense during the hearing held by a judge in Turkey, said Sandra Jolley, vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. Congress appoints members to the commission.

"Today's 11 hours of proceedings were dominated by wild conspiracies, tortured logic and secret witnesses, but no real evidence to speak of," Jolley said in a statement released by the commission.

"Worse still," Jolley said, "the judge's decision at the conclusion of today's hearing to dismiss all of the witnesses called by Pastor Brunson's defense without listening to a single minute of their testimony is simply unconscionable."

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., called the Turkish judicial hearing "a kangaroo court," the (Asheville) Citizen-Times reported.

The judge postponed the rest of Brunson's hearing to July 18, according to the commission.

Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Tillis and others have called for Brunson's release for many months.

Tillis has been to Turkey twice since late March. On his first visit, Tillis met with Brunson at Buca Prison in Izmir and met separately with Brunson's wife, Norine, and Brunson's attorney. The second visit was to attend the first hearing of the trial.

Tillis also wrote a letter to Erdogan signed by 66 senators demanding Brunson's release and warning actions could be taken by Congress. Late last month, Tillis co-introduced legislation that would ban the sale of F-35s to Turkey.

"They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is," Trump tweeted in April of Brunson. Trump called Brunson "a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States" who "is being persecuted for no reason."

Turkish authorities detained Brunson in October 2016 and accused him of membership in an armed terrorist organization. Turkish prosecutors later indicted the pastor on terrorism- and espionage-related charges, seeking a prison sentence of up to 35 years.

Brunson has lived and worked in Turkey for 22 years.

Brunson is being held as a pawn in a hostage negotiation, said David Curry of Open Doors USA, a nonprofit organization that supports Christians in countries that persecute them for their beliefs. Turkey is trying to get the United States to extradite Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, someone Turkish President Recep Erdogan believes is at least partially responsible for the failed coup in 2016, Curry has told the Mission Network News.

On Monday, Jolley said of Turkey: "It is unthinkable that a friend and fellow NATO ally would jeopardize our vital and historic ties. "The American public and the U.S. Congress are deeply disturbed by the events of the past 18 months. The truth is that this case is part of a larger decline in personal freedoms, including religious freedom and human rights, that we are witnessing in Turkey in recent years."