US pastor goes on trial in Turkey for terror links, spying

People walk past the Izmir Resurrection Church, where jailed Andrew Craig Brunson served as the pastor, in Izmir, western Turkey. (Lefteris Pitarakis, AP)
People walk past the Izmir Resurrection Church, where jailed Andrew Craig Brunson served as the pastor, in Izmir, western Turkey. (Lefteris Pitarakis, AP)

An American pastor accused of ties to terror groups and spying in Turkey went on trial on Monday, in a case that has strained ties between Turkey and the United States.

Andrew Craig Brunson, a 50-year-old evangelical pastor from North Carolina, faces up to 35 years in prison on charges of "committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member" and "espionage".

He was arrested in the aftermath of a failed military coup in 2016, for alleged links to both the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, and a network led by US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is blamed by Turkey for the coup attempt.

Brunson, who served as the pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church with a small Protestant congregation and has lived in Turkey for 23 years, denies all allegations.

His trial opened in the town of Aliaga, some 60km north of the Aegean coastal city of Izmir, a year and half after his arrest, with court officials reading the prosecutors' indictment. North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis and Sam Brownback, US ambassador-at-large for religious freedoms were observing the trial, Turkey's private Dogan news agency reported.

Prosecutors are seeking 15 years in prison against the pastor for alleged crimes committed in the name of Gulen's group and the PKK, and a further 20 years for allegedly obtaining state secrets for political and military spying purposes using his religious work as cover.

The indictment – based on the testimonies of witnesses, including three secret ones, and alleged digital evidence – claims the pastor worked to convert Kurds to Christianity to sow discord.

Calls for release

US officials have repeatedly called for Brunson's release, and US President Donald Trump has asked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to have his government "expeditiously" return the pastor to the US.

Erdogan fired back at Washington, demanding that the US return Gulen to Turkey.

"Give him (Gulen) to us, and we will try (Brunson) and return him," Erdogan said last year.

Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, has denied involvement in the coup.

Brunson's lawyer, Ismail Cem Halavurt, told The Associated Press on Sunday he expects the pastor's acquittal, arguing that the "weak" indictment lacks sufficient evidence to make the case hold up in court.

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