Pastor's trial resumes in Turkey; US urges release


ALIAGA, Turkey — The trial resumed in Turkey on Wednesday of an American pastor held for almost two years on terror charges as his supporters and the US government urged the Turkish authorities to release him.

The case of Andrew Brunson, who ran a protestant church in the Aegean city of Izmir and was first detained in October 2016, has become a major sticking point in improving relations between Ankara and Washington.

He faces up to 35 years in jail if convicted on charges of carrying out activities on behalf of two groups deemed by Turkey to be terror organizations — the group led by US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen who Ankara says was behind the failed 2016 coup and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Brunson has at previous hearings denied the charges, which his supporters have derided as absurd.

US President Donald Trump has called for Brunson's release and the issue was discussed in a phone call between the American leader and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday.

Philipp Kosnett, the US charge d'affaires who was attending Wednesday's hearing, said both Erdogan and Trump were committed to rebuilding the bilateral relationship but the Brunson case was a key obstacle.

"This case is really important because it has become a critical issue," he told reporters outside the court in Aliaga north of Izmir.

"The sooner Andrew Brunson can be reunited with his family, the sooner we can start focusing on other issues in the relationship," he added.

Brunson's lawyer Cam Halavurt said: "We expect him to be released".

The court had in both previous hearings on April 16 and May 7 denied requests by the defense for Brunson to be released.

Turkish-US relations are already strained over American backing for a Kurdish militia in Syria which Turkey says is linked to the PKK and Washington's refusal to extradite Gulen.

Two Turkish employees from American missions in Turkey are also behind bars — a US Istanbul consulate staffer charged with espionage and an employee at the US consulate in Adana charged with supporting the PKK.

Last September, Erdogan suggested that Turkey could free Brunson if Washington handed over Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania — an offer brushed off by Washington.

Despite the tensions, Erdogan and Trump maintain cordial personal relations, with US channel CBS reporting that the two "fist-bumped" at last week's NATO summit in Brussels with the American president praising his Turkish counterpart for doing things "the right way". — AFP