US senators urge Erdoğan to release American pastor Brunson

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This undated photo made available by the Dogan News Agency on March 13, 2018 shows Andrew Brunson, an American pastor, in Izmir. Andrew Brunson, an American pastor held in Turkey for one and a half years in a case that further strained relations between Ankara and Washington, is to go on trial on April 16 on terror-related charges. Brunson, who ran a church in the western city of Izmir, was detained by the Turkish authorities in October 2016 and then remanded in custody. He is charged in the indictment with carrying out activities on behalf of the group led by preacher Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara says masterminded the failed coup in 2016, and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Both are banned by Turkey as terror groups. / AFP PHOTO / DHA / STR / Turkey OUT

Sixty-six US senators signed a letter released on Friday urging Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to free an American pastor on trial in Turkey on charges of links to a group accused of orchestrating a failed military coup in July 2016, Reuters reported.

Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor who has lived in Turkey for 23 years, was indicted on charges of helping the faith-based Gülen movement, which Ankara accuses of masterminding the failed coup.

Brunson on Monday denied allegations of any links to the movement as he went on trial in a case that has fuelled tensions between the Turkish government and the Trump administration.

He faces two sentences of 15 and 20 years in prison if convicted on additional charges of gathering intelligence using his religious work as a cover and working to convert Kurds to Christianity to “divide” the country.

The letter, led by Republican Senator Thom Tillis, who represents Brunson’s home state of North Carolina, and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, said the Senate backs efforts to strengthen cooperation between US and Turkish law enforcement.

“However, we are deeply disturbed that the Turkish government has gone beyond legitimate action against the coup plotters to undermine Turkey’s own rule of law and democratic traditions,” it said.

Shaheen and Republican Senator James Lankford, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a separate statement they would push for sanctions against Turkish officials in an upcoming spending bill in response to Brunson’s imprisonment.

US President Donald Trump also voiced his support for Brunson on Twitter this week, writing, “They call him a spy, but I am more a spy than he is.”

In their letter, the senators warned that unspecified measures might be necessary to ensure the Turkish government “respects the rights of law-abiding citizens” of the United States to be in Turkey without fear of prosecution.

Washington has called for Brunson’s release, while Erdoğan suggested last year his fate could be linked to that of US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, whose extradition Ankara has repeatedly sought to face charges over the coup attempt. Gülen and the group he inspired strongly deny any involvement in the putsch.

The letter was signed by 43 Republicans and 23 Democrats, two-thirds of the Senate, in total.

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