U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted yesterday in support of Andrew Craig Brunson, a North Carolina pastor jailed in Turkey for links to the terrorist groups and espionage. The tweet caused outrage in the country, while a spokesman for the ruling party called Trump to respect the independence of courts in Turkey.
"Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason. They call him a spy but I am more a spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!" Trump tweeted. The government was quiet on the U.S. president's remarks when Daily Sabah went to print, but Mahir Ünal, deputy chair and spokesman of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party, kindly warned Trump not to intervene in the case. "We are used to Trump's tweets but I'd like to emphasize that Turkey is a state of law," Ünal said in a televised interview. He said Turkey has its own independent judiciary like in the United States and one should respect the verdicts of courts. "It is [the judiciary] that will hand down the verdict on the pastor, not Trump or anyone outside the legal authority on the matter. We cannot assess or comment on the legal process," he stated.
Social media users also reacted to Trump's tweet, calling security forces to arrest Trump when he comes to Turkey after his "confession" of being a spy.
The pastor, imprisoned in the western city of Izmir where he ran a Protestant church, is accused of espionage and aiding two terror groups, charges carrying up to 35 years in prison.
In his first appearance before the court last week, the pastor, in fluent Turkish, denied all charges against him, including his contacts with the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) blamed for a 2016 coup attempt and the PKK, another terrorist group. Prosecutors also accuse him of involvement in espionage or rather, obtaining information for espionage purposes, citing his contacts with retired soldiers, special warfare officers and some shady figures.
The case of Brunson is a thorny issue between Ankara and Washington. Washington has repeatedly called for the release of Brunson, claiming he was "unjustly detained." A senator from North Carolina and the U.S. Ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback were among those attending his trial in İzmir, which was later postponed to next month. Brownback told reporters outside the courthouse that although the United States cares "deeply" about relation with Turkey, relations would have difficulty moving forward as long as Brunson is in jail. As Brunson's lawyer told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that there was no use in pushing this case on political grounds, Brownback said the U.S. administration, from President Donald Trump down, wanted to see the case resolved and see Brunson "released."
Turkey's counterterrorism fight often faces obstruction and objection from the United States. Washington went the extra mile of suspending visas for Turkish citizens when Metin Topuz, an employee at the US Consulate in Istanbul, was arrested for links to FETÖ last year. Scathing remarks by U.S. officials over the arrest of Topuz again drew the ire of Ankara that pointed to the independence of the judiciary.