Turkey replaces prosecutor who indicted US pastor Brunson

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Andrew Brunson was released from prison into house arrest in July.

At the outset last week of Turkey’s new judicial year, the Izmir prosecutor who prepared the controversial indictment accusing US pastor Andrew Brunson of terrorism and espionage was reassigned to another bureau.

Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul dismissed the transfer simply as a “routine procedure” with no particular significance, referring to Turkey’s common practice of changing judges and prosecutors mid-way through the trial process.

Stating that the prosecutor in question had been removed from the Anti-Terror Bureau and assigned to the Bureau of Cybercrimes, Gul said the Izmir Chief Prosecutor’s office had also reassigned five other prosecutors.

But the replacement of Berkant Karakay, identified in the Turkish press as Brunson’s main prosecutor, was described by Brunson’s lawyer as a move that could bring positive change in the pastor’s highly disputed case.

However, lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt clarified to Reuters on 6 September that it would be wrong to expect this judicial transfer to result in the pastor’s release.

“He [Karakaay] has constantly added fresh testimonies from anonymous witnesses who had nothing to do with my client,” the lawyer said. “Now his removal might be a sign that the will about this case is changing.

“But it is not right to say that [Brunson] might be freed based on this development. We will have to wait and see.”

US President Donald Trump had expected the US clergyman, jailed now for nearly two years, to be released after his third trial hearing on 18 July. Brunson was instead transferred a week later to house arrest. He remains under guard in his Izmir home until the next trial, set for 12 October.

Presidential ping-pong

Trump admitted to Bloomberg News on 30 August that he felt “personally let down” after he had promised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a week before Brunson’s July trial, to help him secure the release of a Turkish citizen detained in Israel. After the two leaders’ very brief interaction in person on the sidelines of the Brussels NATO summit, Trump believed that Erdogan had agreed to facilitate Brunson’s release, in response to Trump’s successful influence with Israel.

But instead, Erdogan insisted that Turkey followed rule of law, and so declared that he could not interfere in the courts’ jurisdiction over the pastor’s case. Trump then vowed he would make “no concessions” to Turkey over Brunson’s case, continuing to demand Brunson’s unconditional release.

“I think it’s very sad what Turkey is doing. I think they are making a terrible mistake. There will be no concessions,” he said, standing by the surprise sanctions and stiff tariffs he had imposed against Turkey in August over Brunson’s ongoing detention.

The bitter disagreements between Ankara and Washington over the pastor’s case have dominated the Turkish media for the past two months, exacerbated by the drastic drop in the value of the Turkish lira. The Turkish public has widely blamed the nation’s ensuing economic crisis on Trump’s forceful demands for Brunson’s immediate release.

Brunson’s name has appeared in national and local headlines nearly every day, along with photographs and video links that allegedly document his support of the armed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Gulenist (FETO) network accused of triggering the failed July 2016 armed coup against the Turkish government.

Repeated “conspiracy” claims have proliferated over these weeks, coming from both extremist press sources as well as national media. A member of parliament and a respected pro-government columnist were among those spreading inaccurate explanations of the contents of the indictment.

The prosecution has demanded 35 years in prison if Brunson is convicted of the criminal charges against him, based heavily on hearsay testimony in the indictment and mostly secret witnesses appearing in the first three court hearings. To date, the court has only permitted one of the 10 defence witnesses listed by Halavurt to address the trial on Brunson’s behalf.

Brunson’s case was highlighted prominently by Supreme Court of Appeals President Ismail Rustu Cirit at Ankara’s official ceremony launching Turkey’s new judicial year on 3 September, when it led the evening news on several Turkish TV channels that day.

Without naming the pastor, Cirit declared in his address: “The only and absolute power that can rule on the arrest of a foreign citizen in Izmir and decisions about his trial is the independent and impartial courts, which use their judicial power on behalf of the Turkish nation.”

In a clear slam at Trump’s demands, the judge stated: “Foreign states that claim to sustain ideals of democracy, human rights and the state of law should first respect the Republic of Turkey, which is protected by international law.”

Constitutional Court appeal pending

Halavurt filed three separate court appeals during July and August for Brunson’s release and the lifting of his travel ban.

Since all these petitions have been rejected by the respective Izmir courts, the lawyer confirmed he will appeal to the Constitutional Court during September.

“My client must be released if it is going to be a legal decision,” Halavurt told online Bianet on 27 August. “But we will see how much politics is forceful on the Constitutional Court.”

After Brunson’s move to house arrest with his wife in their Izmir home, the Turkish authorities have permitted representatives of the US Embassy in Ankara and even one Turkish dentist to visit him, as well as the delivery of an exercise treadmill to his second-floor apartment, which the 50-year-old pastor is not allowed to leave.

Watchful local reporters, who have staked out the pastor’s home in Izmir’s Alsancak district, kept under steady guard by teams of uniformed police officers and assorted surveillance vehicles, have dubbed the location “the safest street in Turkey”.

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