Rev Andrew Brunson (50) is an American pastor who was detained in Turkey in early October 2016. The authorities initially accused him of links to a terrorist organisation, but later charged him with terrorism and spying.
LATEST NEWS (12 October 2018): Andrew was released and left Turkey to return to the US. At a court hearing in Izmir he was convicted of intentionally aiding terrorist organisations and sentenced to three years and one month in prison, with the final year suspended. As he had been imprisoned since October 2016, his release was ordered on the basis of time served.
Andrew is pastor of the Izmir Dirilis (Resurrection) Church, which has a congregation of thirty to forty members, on the west coast of Turkey. He and his wife Norine led the congregation for 23 years. A native of North Carolina, Andrew belongs to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
Andrew and Norine were detained under deportation orders in the port city of Izmir on 7 October 2016. Norine was released on 19 October, but Andrew was held in detention facilities without formal charges until 9 December, when he was brought to court for the first time for questioning. He was accused of “membership in an armed terrorist organisation” and sent to prison. The organisation in question is the Gülen movement (see below), blamed by the Turkish government for the failed coup in July 2016. He has also been accused of links to the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Andrew’s lawyer was denied access to him during his first two months of detention, and US Embassy officials were blocked several times in their attempts to visit him in prison, until eventually a meeting was permitted on 30 December 2016.
In August 2017, Andrew faced new, more serious charges of spying and insurgency, with prosecutors seeking a 35-year sentence.
Andrew’s trial opened in April 2018. In July, a week after his third court hearing, Andrew was released to house arrest – reportedly on health grounds – until the fourth hearing, scheduled for 12 October.
Andrew and Norine have three adult children, who are in the US. Andrew and Norine live in a second-floor apartment in Izmir. During 2017, he missed his daughter’s wedding and her university graduation.
The Gülen movement
The Gülen movement is classified as a terrorist organisation in Turkey. The government calls it the Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organisation (FETO) and blames it for the failed coup of July 2016, in which 250 people were killed. Since then, thousands of judges, prosecutors, military personnel, opposition party politicians, journalists, teachers and other civilians have been arrested in an attempt to identify and prosecute those responsible. On 2 January 2017, the Justice Ministry announced that to date 41,326 terrorism suspects had been arrested.
The man behind the movement, Islamic cleric and political activist Fethullah Gülen, a former ally of President Erdoğan, lives in Pennsylvania and the American authorities refuse to extradite him. Armenian members of Turkey’s parliament claim that retaliation for this refusal is the reason for the treatment of American Christians in the wake of the failed coup, following which several expatriate pastors were accused of being “a threat to national security” and deported. Fethullah Gülen has denied any role in the coup attempt.
April 2016 The Brunsons applied to renew their residence visas, but received no response.
28 September 2016 The Immigration Authority issued a notification for Andrew and Norine’s deportation on the grounds that their religious activities were “against national security”.
7 October 2016 Andrew and Norine received a summons requesting them to report with their passports to a local police station. On arrival, they were taken into custody. According to the authorities at the Migration Administration’s detention facility in Izmir, the Turkish Interior Ministry ordered that Andrew and Norine be deported within 15 days as they posed “a threat to national security”. They were held incommunicado, without formal charges, and a lawyer asking to visit them was denied access.
19 October 2016 Norine was released and given an extended permit to remain in Turkey, but Andrew was detained in solitary confinement at Harmandali Detention Center, an immigration detention facility on the north edge of Izmir.
8 December 2016 Andrew was transferred overnight to a counter-terrorism centre before being brought before an Izmir court for interrogation.
9 December 2016 Andrew was brought to court for the first time. He was accused of “membership in an armed terrorist organisation” and the court ordered that he be sent to prison. The judge said the terrorism charges came from a “secret informant”, and specified allegations that the pastor had links with the Gülen movement. Andrew’s lawyer was not allowed to see the file of Interior Ministry allegations and could not defend him in court. Andrew was transferred to Sakran Prison near Izmir and put in an overcrowded cell with 18 Turkish prisoners who have also been accused of links with the Gülen movement.
29 December 2016 An Izmir court denied an initial appeal for Andrew’s release.
9 March 2017 Turkish Prime Minister Binaldi Yildirim told American journalists at a lunch in Ankara that Turkey would consider “accelerating” Andrew’s trial process. He said it was “nonsensical” to believe Turkey is holding him hostage until the US agrees to extradite Fethullah Gülen.
28 March 2017 US Embassy officials from Ankara met Andrew in prison and he handed them an appeal letter to US President Donald Trump, describing himself as a political prisoner under false accusation and writing: “I plead with my government – with the Trump administration – to fight for me. Please do not leave me here in prison.”
30 March 2017 US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had a twenty-minute meeting with Norine. He was on a one-day stopover in Ankara to discuss Syria and other diplomatic issues with President Erdogan and senior government ministers. After the meeting, Norine reported that Rex Tillerson said he had been told an indictment regarding her husband’s case was “about to be handed down”.
16 May 2017 President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met US President Donald Trump at the White House to discuss Washington’s decision to supply weapons to a Syrian Kurdish group that Ankara considers a terrorist organisation, and Turkey’s demand for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen. At the meeting, President Trump made an unexpected counter-demand that President Erdoğan release Andrew Brunson.
June 2017 Andrew was moved to Kiriklar Maximum Security Prison in Izmir’s Buca district, sharing a cell with two Turkish prisoners. He was allowed to leave his cell once a week for a scheduled visit with his wife or a US consular officer.
24 August 2017 Andrew faced new, more serious charges of spying and insurgency, with prosecutors demanding he receive four consecutive life sentences in prison. On 24 August, he was connected by video link from prison to a judge in the 2nd Criminal Court in Izmir, who read out allegations from the chief prosecutor’s office that Andrew had obtained confidential political and military information for espionage purposes, to overthrow the Turkish Parliament and government and undermine the constitutional order of the state. According to the state-run Anadolu news agency, investigations by the chief prosecutor’s office had submitted “new” evidence. Andrew denied all the charges and told the court, “I have never in my life met with a member of the Gulen movement. I have never attended any of their meetings. I do not have a single link with FETO… I started a church; I am a man of religion who did this with the state’s knowledge. My aim is to tell about Jesus Christ. I didn’t do espionage. I demand an explanation as to when, where and how I conducted espionage.” Neither Andrew nor his lawyer has had access to his file or any evidence submitted. Andrew was returned to the maximum-security prison in Buca.
28 September 2017 On 28 September, in a speech to police officers at the presidential palace in Ankara, President Erdoğan suggested that Turkey would free Andrew if the US handed over Fethullah Gülen. He said, “‘Give us the pastor back,’ they say. You have one pastor as well. Give him [Gülen] to us. Then we will try him [Brunson] and give him to you. The [pastor] we have is on trial. Yours is not – he is living in Pennsylvania. You can give him easily. You can give him right away.”
A decree issued in August gave President Erdoğan authority to approve the exchange of foreigners detained or convicted in Turkey with people held in other countries “in situations required by national security or national interests”. Asked about President Erdoğan’s suggestion of a swap, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “I can’t imagine that we would go down that road.” She said US diplomats visited Andrew on 18 September, and added, “We continue to advocate for his release. He was wrongfully imprisoned in Turkey, and we’d like to see him brought home.” Reuters reported that US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Turkish government had yet to provide enough evidence for the US Justice Department to act.
3 January 2018 Andrew spent his 50th birthday in prison. A close family member commented, “We would never have imagined this kind of a birthday. Andrew did what he set out to do: he thanked God for the life he has had.” Reports around that time noted that Andrew had lost 20kg in weight, and that during 2017 he had missed his daughter’s wedding and her university graduation.
16 March 2018 The Turkish Public Prosecutor’s Office submitted an indictment to Izmir’s Second Criminal Court seeking up to 35 years in prison for Andrew. Prosecutors demanded 15 years’ imprisonment for “committing crimes on behalf of terror organisations” and up to 20 years for “political or military espionage”. In the indictment, the prosecutor charged Andrew with being a “a member and executive” of the Gülen movement, and also charged him with establishing links with the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
16 April 2018 Andrew’s trial opened, but was adjourned for three weeks. The indictment was read and Andrew responded, telling the court, “I do not accept the charges mentioned in the indictment. I was never involved in any illegal activities.” Andrew said he was suffering psychologically. He had spent the previous week in solitary confinement in Sakran T Type Closed Punishment Facility and asked to be released under house arrest, but the court refused and ordered that he be held in Sakran Prison, where he had been incarcerated in December 2016. He was put in solitary confinement.
20 April 2018 Andrew was moved again, to his family’s relief, back to the prison in Buca.
7 May 2018 Andrew’s second court hearing was held, but after it he was returned to prison in Buca to await a third hearing set for 18 July. The court heard witness testimonies, but three of the witnesses submitted by the defence were refused permission to testify on the grounds that they were also suspects in the case. Three members of the US government’s Commission on International Religious Freedom and the Chargé D’Affaires attended the hearing.
18 July 2018 Andrew’s third court hearing was held. After hearing testimonies from four witnesses, the judge ruled that he be sent back to prison and another hearing was scheduled for 12 October. The ruling came as a bitter disappointment to Andrew and his family and friends, as they had hoped he would be released on bail. Andrew’s lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt said he should have been granted conditional release as the investigation was complete.
25 July 2018 The 2nd Criminal Court of Izmir ruled that Andrew be released from prison to house arrest until his next court hearing on 12 October. He left prison at 5.30 pm and was driven home with a police escort. At Andrew’s third court hearing a week previously, the judge had ruled that he be sent back to prison; the Daily Sabah newspaper reported that the jurors reconsidered the decision based on the plea by Andrew and his lawyer over his health. He is not permitted to leave his apartment. His street is constantly patrolled by police guards and surveillance vehicles and local reporters have dubbed it “the safest street in Turkey”. Andrew has been permitted visits from US Embassy officials and a dentist, and the delivery of an exercise treadmill.
12 October 2018 Andrew was released and left Turkey to return to the US. At a court hearing in Izmir he was convicted of intentionally aiding terrorist organisations and sentenced to three years and one month in prison, with the final year suspended. As he had been imprisoned since October 2016, his release was ordered on the basis of time served.
(Christianity Today, Hurriyet Daily News, Middle East Concern, World Watch Monitor)