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[UPDATE] Turkish court rules to keep American pastor behind bars

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A Turkish court ruled to keep in custody American Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was jailed in October 2016 in Turkey on espionage and terror charges, deeming him a flight risk, after his trial opened on Monday in the western Turkish province of İzmir, AFP reported.

The judge said Brunson must stay in jail, setting the next hearing for May 7, adding that the ruling was based on evidence given by witnesses in the case and the risk that Brunson might flee the country, according to an AFP correspondent.

Brunson is accused of helping the faith-based Gülen movement, led by Fethullah Gülen, an exiled Turkish-Islamic scholar who Turkish officials allege was behind a failed 2016 coup. Gülen strongly denies any involvement in the putsch.

Brunson, who ran a Protestant church in İzmir, was detained in October 2016 and arrested in December 2016.

If convicted, the Christian cleric faces up to 35 years behind bars on terror and espionage charges.

In addition to the Gülen movement, Brunson is also accused of supporting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is listed as a terror organization by Turkey, the EU and the US.

Sam Brownback, the US ambassador at large for international religious freedom, and US Senator from North Carolina Thom Tillis were among the observers of Brunson’s hearing on Monday.

“We are very disappointed. If anything, I think the information that has been presented today creates a more compelling reason why he is innocent,” Tillis told reporters after the ruling.

Brunson reacted with emotion to the ruling, telling his wife Norine in English: “I am going crazy. I love you.” He had earlier told the judge tearfully: “I want to return my home. For 16 months I have been separated from my wife.”

The trial of the US pastor is being heard by the İzmir 2nd High Criminal Court. Brunson’s lawyer Cem Halavurt has called the charges against his client “totally unfounded” and says they are based on the testimony of secret informants.

Lawyer Halavurt told AFP ahead of the hearing that his client was “both nervous, but also excited because it is the first time he will appear before a judge. He has expectations and hope.”

Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for 23 years, serving as pastor of the İzmir Resurrection Church, was among those swept up in a massive crackdown by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan following the failed coup.

Turkey has arrested more than 50,000 people due to alleged links to the Gülen movement since the coup attempt.

Turkey initially accused the pastor of being a member of both the Gülen movement and the PKK, but apparently adjusted the charges before the trial, accusing him of working on the groups’ behalf.

Relations between Turkey and the US were already strained over American support for Kurdish militias in Syria that have been targeted by Turkish forces.

Turkey has formally sought the extradition of Gülen, but the US says it has not been given sufficient evidence to back up the request.

In September, Erdoğan raised the prospect of a swap, exchanging Brunson for Gülen, but the idea was dismissed by US authorities, who have pressed Turkey to release the pastor.

According to CeCe Heil, executive senior counsel at US Christian group the American Center for Law and Justice, Brunson has lost 23 kilograms during his detention and been denied private meetings with his lawyer.

Brunson’s daughter, Jacqueline Furnari, told a US commission investigating the crackdown in Turkey that she had postponed her wedding in her father’s absence.

“I’m still waiting for my dad to walk me down the aisle, and I’m still waiting for that father-daughter dance,” she said.

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