Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who was jailed for two years in Turkey before his release in 2018, has said in a recent interview that Turkey’s demands from the US in exchange for his release were beyond what Washington could do, with the Turkish government using him as a bargaining chip to get its way on a number of issues.
Brunson was detained by Turkey in October 2016, three months before Donald Trump became US president. Turkey accused Brunson of spying and links to terrorist groups.
Amid increasing pressure by Trump as well as then-Vice President Mike Pence threatening Turkey with sanctions, Brunson was first moved from prison to house arrest in July 2018 and later released in October 2018.
The investigation launched into him was ill-founded, Brunson told İsmail Saymaz of the Halk TV news website in an exclusive interview published on Thursday, adding that efforts were made by the government to manufacture any grounds on which to base a criminal proceeding against him.
“They knowingly targeted me. Initially, there was nothing to use against me. I was accused of Gülen links. Later, they said I had gone to Syria to support the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party]. Then they said I supported the Gezi Park protests. They used me as a bargaining chip,” Brunson said, speaking in Turkish.
Brunson was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of aiding a terrorist organization due to his alleged links to the Gülen movement, the PKK and the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the EU, while the Turkish government considers the Gülen movement and the YPG to be terrorist groups.
In its 124-page reasoned opinion, the court said Brunson had acted based on the “win-win” principle, collaborated with “FETÖ,” a term coined by the Turkish government to refer to the Gülen movement as a terrorist organization, got assistance from the group and aided the group although he wasn’t a part of it.
Brunson was also accused of aiding the PKK and the YPG and imposing the views of these groups on parishioners.
Brunson noted that he went to Turkey to spread the Christian faith and that the Turkish authorities were properly informed about his activities in the country.
“They knew all about our gatherings. Had I really been involved in the crime they accused me of, they would have arrested me long before,” he said, adding that he was used as a bargaining chip.
“They bargained [with the US] behind the scenes. They made a couple of deals with the US, but their demands would change continuously. As a result, these deals would repeatedly be blown up.”
The Turkish government tried to use Brunson’s imprisonment to put pressure on the US about a case against Turkish state-owned Halkbank, which faces a trial for allegedly helping Iran evade US sanctions, Brunson said in the interview.
He added that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan repeatedly demanded the extradition of cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom he accused of masterminding a coup attempt in July 2016, as a condition for the pastor’s release.
Gülen denied having any role in the abortive putsch and called for an international investigation into it.
Then-president Trump said there was “no deal” behind Brunson’s release but repeatedly thanked Erdoğan.