March 15 2018
Turkish prosecutors issued official charges seeking a life sentence against Pastor Andrew Brunson on Tuesday, March 13 for the first time since his imprisonment in Oct. 2016. The indictment presented to Izmir’s Second Criminal Court accused Brunson of being a “member and executive” of a terrorist organization and participating in the July 2016 attempted coup against the Turkish government.
“The fact that the prosecutor has called Pastor Brunson a leader in the process of the attempted coup is outrageous, and the prosecutor has also called for a life sentence, which is a travesty. It is shocking and sad and incomprehensible that a NATO ally would behave toward the United States in this manner and use a pastor as a pawn,” Vice Chairwoman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Kristina Arriaga told the Record.
“Until now, the government of Turkey, the prosecutor, had not pressed charges,” Arriaga explained, “Everything that Pastor Brunson knew was mostly through his paper accounts. His own lawyer didn’t know what the charges were and there is not a list of witnesses. All of the evidence that the government claims to have is from so-called secret witnesses.”
In a note written from prison and read to the UN on March 9, Brunson said, “Let it be clear. I am in prison not for anything I have done wrong, but because of who I am—a Christian pastor.”
Brunson was arrested unexpectedly without bail on Oct. 7, 2016 after 22 years of serving as a pastor in Turkey. According to Arriaga, his arrest followed the 2016 coup as the government began limiting civil and political rights. Journalists, American officials and other religious leaders have also been imprisoned, causing the USCIRF to place Turkey on its Tier 2 for violations of religious freedom and begin advocating for Brunson’s release.
Arriaga, along with other USCIRF Vice Chairwoman Sandar Jolley, was able to visit Brunson earlier this year. “He is extremely distressed. He has lost 50 pounds. He is very isolated, the only Christian, the only American, the only Christian in the entire prison. He is never allowed to leave his cell … never sees the light of day,” said Arriaga.
The USCIRF has advised Congress and the President to impose sanctions on Turkey if they refuse to release Brunson. In addition, the USCIRF is working to increase international pressure on Turkey, specifically within the NATO alliance.
According to Arriaga, students at Wheaton have the ability to advocate for Brunson’s release. “Right now the US has been unable to pry upon that cell for Pastor Brunson, [so] we need to appeal to the international community,” she said, “If you have an international community of students at Wheaton, and I know you do, have them start calling their governments, direct the letter-writing campaign to the governments of France, and Germany … See if you can start a movement.”
March 15 2018