A State Department official along with Human Rights organizations and the daughter of the imprisoned pastor Brunson testify in front of the US Helsinki Commission
Washington, D.C. (GreekNewsOnline)
Following a strong letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on October 17, urging him to lift the state of emergency that has been in place in Turkey since July 2016 and immediately restore Turkey’s commitment to international standards of due process and judicial independence, the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), aka the Helsinki Commission, held a hearing on Wednesday, November 17, on the victims, including US citizens, of a crackdown by the Turkish government following a failed coup last year. The Commission is a bipartisan independent agency of the federal government comprised by members of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s promotes human rights and democracy to improve security in a 57-nation region.
During the hearing, titled “Prisoners of the Purge, The Victims of Turkey’s Failing Rule of Law,” the CSCE, chaired by US Senator Thom Tillis, heard Jonathan R. Cohen, deputy assistant secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs; CeCe Heil, American Center for Law and Justice executive counsel; Jacqueline Furnari, daughter of US pastor Andrew Brunson, who remains jailed in Turkey for more than a year over alleged links to the coup attempt; and Nate Schenkkan, director of the Nations in Transit Project at Freedom House.
Brunson, who is a Presbyterian pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina, dedicated 23 years to Christian missionary work in Turkey until he was arrested last October. He has been detained in Turkey on national security charges and denied regular and appropriate access to legal counsel and American consular services. Earlier this year, Senator Tillis, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), and leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees sent a letter signed by 78 members of Congress to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeking the unconditional release of American pastor Andrew Brunson.
“As of today, Andrew Brunson has spent 404 days in a Turkish jail without trial and without access to the evidence against him”, said Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) who chaired the a Helsinki Commission hearing.
“He is the subject of a vicious smear campaign in the Turkish press, and is facing life in prison on fabricated charges of being a terrorist and coup-plotter,” said Senator Tillis. “It is clear President Erdogan is holding Andrew Brunson ransom and the United States should not expect—much less accept—this sort of treatment from a NATO ally. I will continue to work with the State Department and my colleagues in Congress to secure the release of Andrew so he can return to the United States as a free man.”
In a speech in Ankara on September 28, 2017, President Erdoğan called on the US to extradite Gülen in return for releasing Brunson.
“Some people are trying to divide us, crush us. But they will not be able to divide this nation and country; they will not be able to demolish it. They want a cleric from us, you have a cleric, too. Extradite him so that we can prosecute him,” Erdoğan said.
Speaking at the hearing, deputy assistant secretary of State forf European and Eurasian Affairs Jonathan R. Cohen said there is no Linkage between Cases in U.S., Turkey
“Some in the Turkish government have made efforts to equate cases involving our local staff with the arrest in the United States of a senior executive of Turkey’s state-owned Halk Bank. The two situations and contexts are very different and the U.S. Government strongly objects to any effort to link them. The executive, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, has been charged with conspiring to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran. Our employees were arrested on terrorism charges based on contact, in the course of their official duties, with Turkish officials whom the Turkish state now finds unpalatable”, Cohen stressed.
Cohen said the US doesn’t believe the charges against Brunson, which include espionage, attempting to overthrow the Turkish government and membership in a terrorist organization, are accurate.
In addition to Brunson, a Turkish-American NASA scientist and two Turkish employees of US consulates stand charged with terrorism offenses. Turkey’s relations with US became further strained a diplomatic crisis erupted on October 6 when Turkish authorities arrested Metin Topuz, a Turkish employee of the US Consulate General in Istanbul, on espionage charges.
Topuz’s arrest led Washington to suspend all non-immigrant visa services at diplomatic missions in Turkey, which was immediately followed by a reciprocal move by the Turkish Embassy in Washington to suspend visa applications from the US on October 8.
“The prolongation of the state of emergency has, in the view of the U.S. Government, negatively impacted Turkish democracy, rule of law, and respect for fundamental freedoms. The Turkish government has expropriated nearly one thousand private businesses and dismissed well over 100,000 from their jobs. Tens of thousands have been arrested on terror-related charges. Authorities have imprisoned a growing number of opposition lawmakers, journalists, leading intellectuals, academics, civil society activists, and respected human rights defenders – including respected philanthropist Osman Kavala, Amnesty International Turkey’s Chairman Taner Kilic, and its recently released Director Idil Eser. We call on the Turkish government to expeditiously end the state of emergency, release those not proven guilty of criminal offenses, expedite due process for dismissed civil servants, and cease the seemingly indiscriminate prosecution of individuals – in many cases, individuals that appear to have been targeted because they criticize the government, its officials, or its policies, or have had contact with those who did.”
Jonathan Cohen also underlined that US authorities are carefully reviewing the material provided by Turkish authorities for Pennsylvania-based Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen’s extradition. The Turkish government accuses Gülen and his movement of being behind the failed coup. Gülen strongly denies any involvement.
Speaking during the hearing, Brunson’s daughter Jacqueline Furnari said the accusations against her father are “absurd” as he has never been involved in any crime in Turkey, where he lived for 23 years.
She told the Commission that she has seen her father once since he was put behind bars in October 2016.
“We sobbed the entire visit. … It was difficult to see my dad so thin and so desperate,” said Furnari, a student at UNC Chapel Hill.
Pastor Andrew Brunson is “dealing with anxiety and depression,” Furnari said, and has difficulty writing letters to her because “it reminds him of what he’s missing out on.”
“Please make any and all efforts to secure my dad’s release and bring him home for Christmas,” Furnari asked the commission.
“My husband and I decided to have a civil ceremony and to postpone our wedding until my father is home,” Jacqueline Furnari told the commission. “I’m still waiting for my wedding. I’m still waiting to wear that wedding dress that I got almost a year and a half ago.”
“Pastor Brunson maintains his innocence and denies all the accusations,” testified CeCe Heil, executive counsel CeCe Heil, Executive Senior Counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).
Heil also testified that Brunson has “no idea” what crime he has committed. She said he has not yet been charged with any crime.
“While Pastor Brunson has been in prison, he has lost over 50 pounds; he has lost precious time with his family that can never be replaced, and worst of all, he has lost all hope, wondering why Turkey, a NATO ally and a country that he has loved and served for over two decades, has been able to hold him hostage, an innocent United States citizen, for over a year,” she continued.
To the question, why the Turkish authorities are they still holding him, Heil said:
“Perhaps President Erdoğan himself answered this question when he recently demanded a swap of Pastor Brunson for Fethullah Gülen, the cleric Erdoğan blames for the failed coup attempt in July of last year. So, Pastor Brunson’s incarceration has simply become a bargaining chip for Turkey. However, I would submit that President Erdoğan has mistakenly been led to believe that Pastor Brunson’s value lies simply as a pawn in a swap. In reality, Pastor Brunson’s greatest value to Turkey lies in President Erdoğan’s approval of his immediate release back to the U.S. as a sign of good will, and as a major step toward restoring amicable relations between Turkey and the United States; an invaluable move with immeasurable and long-lasting benefits. We should use every effort to make sure that President Erdoğan gets that message.”
Heil wrote on the ACLJ’s website that she hopes Congress will respond to the testimony on behalf of Brunson and “do everything in its power to ensure Pastor Andrew’s immediate release from Turkey and safe return to his family here in the U.S.”
The ACLJ has a petition drive, calling for the release of Brunson. So far nearly 390,000 people have signed it.
Nate Schenkkan, an official with Freedom House, a U.S. nonprofit that advocates for human and civil rights worldwide, said Erdogan is attacking ethnic and religious minorities to help keep his hold on power. Another method is undermining the independence of the Turkish justice system.
Part of Erdogan’s strategy is using anti-U.S. rhetoric to rally popular support ahead of 2019 elections in which Erdogan hopes to consolidate his rule, Schenkkan said.
“We should not expect an improvement in the rule of law in Turkey in the next two years,” he said.
Complicating matters is the presence in the United States of Fetullah Gullen, a former Erdogan ally the Turkish president blames as the force behind the 2016 coup attempt. The U.S. so far has turned down Turkey’s entreaties that Gullen be sent to Turkey for trial, saying Turkey has not provided evidence to justify his extradition.
The Wall Street Journal reported Nov. 10 that special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating whether Michael Flynn, briefly national security adviser in the Trump administration, was part of a plot to kidnap Gullen and deliver him to Turkey. Flynn denies it. He was part of the Trump campaign, has been targeted for his ties to Russia but also admitted lobbying for Turkey.
Erdogan has publicly discussed trading Brunson for Gullen. Tillis and others Wednesday harshly criticized those comments.
“This is not justice; it’s ransom,” he said. “The United States should not expect, much less accept, this sort of treatment from a NATO ally.”
Schenkkan said anything that encourages talk of a deal through extralegal means undermines the chances for Brunson’s release.
Although President Donald Trump and other members of his administration have raised the Brunson issue with Turkish officials, Schenkkan also obliquely noted fulsome praise Trump has given Erdogan. He would rather see a clearer message from the administration emphasizing human rights.
There have been moves in Congress to penalize Turkish officials violating human rights. They stem from concerns about detentions like Brunson’s and a May incident in which members of Erdogan’s personal security team were seen on videotape attacking protesters in Washington.
Schenkkan said that no matter what the Trump administration does, there will be disagreements between the U.S. and Turkey, which has helped the United States on several matters in the Middle East.
Turkey has also imprisoned a NASA employee with dual U.S.-Turkey citizenship and arrested two employees of U.S. consulates in Turkey. Critics also doubt the validity of those charges.
“The problem of rule of law in Turkey is one that will be with us for a long time,” Schenkkan told the commission.
“There are no magic bullets for improving the U.S.-Turkey relationship. There are diverging values,” he said.