Detained American pastor goes on trial in Turkey

Brunson ran a church in the western Turkish city of Izmir (AFP Photo/STR) (DHA/AFP/File)

ALIAGA (Turkey) (AFP) - An American pastor will go on trial in Turkey on Monday on terror-related charges after spending the last one-and-a-half years behind bars, in a case that has raised friction between Ankara and Washington.

Andrew Brunson, who ran a church in the western city of Izmir, was detained by Turkish authorities in October 2016 and then remanded in custody.

Turkish prosecutors have charged him with engaging in activities on behalf of the group led by Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara says is behind the failed 2016 coup, and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Both are banned by Turkey as terror groups. Brunson is also accused of espionage for political or military purposes.

If convicted, he faces two separate terms of 15 years and 20 years in prison, his lawyer Cem Halavurt told AFP.

However the charges appear lighter than those outlined in the original indictment published on March 13, in which Brunson was accused of being a member of Gulen's group and risked life imprisonment if convicted.

The latest indictment explicitly states he is not charged with being a member of Gulen's group or the PKK.

Monday's hearing will begin at 0600 GMT at the court and prison complex in the Aegean port town of Aliaga north of Izmir, the region's main city.

"Our first priority is to defend Brunson's right to freedom and win his release," Halavurt told AFP.

"We will then see how the dossier will proceed."

- 'Give us the pastor'-

The Brunson case has further raised the temperature of heated relations between NATO allies Turkey and the United States, with US President Donald Trump raising the issue in talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Relations are already tense over American backing for a Kurdish militia in Syria despised by Ankara and the jailing of two employees at American missions in Turkey.

Gulen, who lives in self-exile in the US state of Pennsylvania, firmly denies any role in the failed coup and says his Hizmet (Service) movement promotes a peaceful form of Islam.

Turkey has sent a spate of documents to back up its repeated request for Gulen's extradition from the United States, which has so far shown no sign of interest in expelling the preacher.

In September last year, Erdogan suggested that Turkey could free Brunson if Washington handed over Gulen, raising the idea of a swap deal.

"They say 'give us the pastor'. You have a preacher (Gulen) there. Give him to us, and we will try (Brunson) and give him back," Erdogan said then. The idea was brushed off by the United States.

But Washington has been working intensely to secure the release of Brunson, one of several American nationals caught up in the crackdown after the failed coup.

The US authorities in November and February quietly dropped all charges against 11 bodyguards of Erdogan accused of attacking protesters during the Turkish strongman's visit to Washington last year.

Two supporters of Erdogan jailed in the same case are due to be freed in the next weeks after a plea deal.

Yet Washington has always rejected the notion of any kind of bargaining over Brunson.

- 'Pray for Andrew' -

Turkish media reported that a number of US senators have applied to the Turkish justice ministry to attend the first hearing.

A senior US official, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said Washington takes its obligation to assist US citizens arrested abroad "seriously."

"We are following this case closely, and since his arrest, we have visited Mr. Brunson regularly," the official said.

"We hope that the judicial system in Turkey will resolve Mr. Brunson's case in a timely and fair manner," the source added.

Evangelical pastor Brunson was initially detained along with his wife Norine although she was released in December 2016.

"Please pray that... the cord around Andrew would be loosened/untied," Norine wrote on a Facebook page devoted to her husband's case ahead of the trial.